Coronavirus crisis: Portland tightens restrictions, Maine tops 500 cases

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As the number of Mainers infected with COVID-19 continues to rise, the state will establish alternative care sites in Portland and Bangor to help relieve the strain on hospitals and the health-care system.

Gov. Janet Mills, at a press briefing in Augusta, also said her administration is considering delaying the state’s June 9 primaries and elections to July 14.

Portland, meanwhile, on Monday took additional steps to prevent people from getting too close to each other.

The city closed all the parking lots around the Back Cove Trail, blaming “high usage and overcrowding concerns.” The action came a week after the city and state implemented stay-at-home orders, and several days after the city closed the Oxford Street Shelter to new clients.

City officials said residents are still allowed to get outdoor exercise, but they shouldn’t be driving far, if at all, to do so. Instead, the city recommends residents access parks and trails within walking distance of their homes, and continue to maintain a 6-foot distance from other people.

A car is towed from the Back Cove Trail parking lot Tuesday morning, April 7, after the lot was closed by Portland Monday afternoon to discourage people from using the trail. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

On Tuesday morning the city showed it was serious: cars that remained in the parking lots along Preble Street were towed away.

Also Tuesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 519 cases of COVID-19 in the state, an increase of 20 from Monday.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said 12 people have died in Maine from the virus. The two most recent deaths were a man in his 50s and a woman in her 80s, both Cumberland County residents.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death. The vast majority of people recover.

Shah said 99 people have been hospitalized at some point for the virus. He said 176 people have recovered by CDC standards.

The virus has now reached 15 of the state’s 16 counties. The holdout is the northern, largely rural Piscataquis County. Shah said Cumberland and York counties, which have seen the largest numbers of the virus, are still the only counties where community transmission has been determined.

The state has taken several steps to try to contain the spread. Mills has issued a stay-at-home order for all residents, following on her previous order to close non-essential public-facing businesses. Mills has also called for anyone coming to Maine from another state to quarantine themselves for two weeks.

The two alternative care sites will be at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland and Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. They will be established as soon as next week and staffed shortly thereafter, Mills said, with 100 beds in Portland and at least 50 in Bangor.

Mills also said the state Department of Health and Human Services next week will begin making $10 million in supplemental payments available to Maine hospitals.

Protective equipment

Last week, Shah said the Maine CDC distributed more than 109,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, also known as PPE, which includes items like gloves and surgical masks. Shah said PPE is “a vital resource that has been in short supply” both in Maine and across the country. He said the CDC continues to make sure PPE distributions are made “fairly and equitably.”

“This PPE is used by health-care workers of all stripes who are on the front lines working with COVID-19 patients,” he said.

Shah said Maine’s stockpile of PPE does not come from a single source. Some came from federal reserves, while others came from various other sources across the United States. He said he eventually expects some to come from Maine manufacturers, although there isn’t a timeline for when that may happen.

Maine, however, will need more and Shah has said while the state received what it requested from the federal stockpile, the federal government has said Maine will not receive any more PPE from this source.

On Tuesday, Shah said 168 PPE orders had been shipped since Monday.

Shah took time in his briefing Monday to praise health-care workers across the state who are not only doing good work but often putting themselves in harm’s way by providing aid.

“Being courageous is not the same thing as being oblivious to risk,” Shah said. “This is a situation where courage takes recognizing the risk and, knowing full well that the risk exists, continuing to charge into the front lines because they know that is the right thing to do.”

Shah has been considered not just a knowledgeable and comforting voice throughout this epidemic, but also an entertaining one. From his comparing the elements of testing to the complexity of baking, to his references to Stephen King and the band Coldplay, Shah’s daily press conferences have brought him popularity. There is a Facebook fan page for the CDC director with almost 10,000 members.

Another group online has started selling T-shirts and other items with the message “In Dr. Nirav Shah We Trust.” The group, called Maine Makes It Through, is donating all proceeds to the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Mills on Tuesday repeated her call for all Mainers to practice physical distancing, regardless of whether they believe they are susceptible to the coronavirus.

“What the future will look like … is all up to us,” the governor said. “Do our part and stay apart.”

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