Stockpile up to two weeks of food and toiletries, talk to your boss about working from home if need be, keep an eye on the news and keep your hands washed.

While Dora Anne Mills on Wednesday likened most of her advice to preparing for a long blizzard, she said Mainers need to prepare for the spread of coronavirus infections in the U.S., which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week is likely.

“The most predictable things about pandemics is that they’re unpredictable,” said Mills, the state’s former top health official, now chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth. “This could fizzle, we could have outbreaks. It could hit really quick and hard like a bad flu season.”

“I’m definitely taking it seriously,” she added.

One way the state is preparing: purchasing equipment able to test for coronavirus – COVID-19 – and other viruses.

Deputy Commissioner of Finance Benjamin Mann told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that Maine’s lone suspected case of COVID-19 earlier this month required shipping a sample to Atlanta because testing wasn’t available here.

The test came back negative 2½ days later.

The committee approved immediately using $53,824 in a federal projects grant account to pay for a Qiagen EZ1 Advanced XL extraction platform, which Mann said is the only equipment able to do nucleic acid extraction to test for the coronavirus.

With the purchase process sped up, Mann said, it could be in the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Lab within five business days.

It replaces a 13-year-old piece of equipment that can’t test for the virus.

Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said Wednesday that the U.S. CDC is overseeing all COVID-19 testing, but “it is possible that states, including Maine, would be authorized to test for the virus if the U.S. CDC moves ahead with state-level testing.”

The U.S. CDC said earlier this week that COVID-19 had been detected in 32 countries and territories.

To date, the United States has 60 known cases of the infection, with 59 among people who traveled to Asia or were spouses of people who went there and one infected in California who had no known contact with someone who had been exposed to the virus, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The majority, 42, picked up the virus while quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan.

Nearly 81,000 cases and 2,772 deaths had been reported worldwide as of Wednesday.

Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath and can start between two and 14 days after exposure. The CDC said person-to-person spread has been mainly by respiratory transmission and is recommending people showing symptoms wear a face mask.

Long said the Maine CDC has been preparing for the possibility of cases here since the outbreak started in December. It held a multiagency pandemic response drill in November and has since been working with health care systems, first responders, local health departments and others on preparedness.

“The risk to the public remains low,” he said.

A Central Maine Medical Center spokeswoman said all of Central Maine Healthcare is following guidance from the Maine and federal CDC, “in a constant state of readiness for any emerging disease through our strict infection prevention practices, comprehensive staff education and strong collaboration with local and regional emergency preparedness resources.”

Mills said MaineHealth, which includes Maine Medical Center in Portland, had taken steps such as screening electronic medical records.

Those checking in for a visit are asked about symptoms and recent travel, and “if they do screen positive, instructions pop up right away to let people know that person needs to be put into a private room right away, not sitting in the waiting room, for instance, so they can expose other people,” Mills said. “It’s been a full team effort getting ready just in case.”

She’s hoping people don’t panic but do stay on top of the news and that businesses evaluate their pandemic policies.

Mills is suggesting people stockpile food and toiletries in case they become sick or they find themselves caring for a sick family member.

She’s personally taking a wait-and-see approach to spring and summer travel plans because their are so many unknowns with the virus.

There was a time during H1N1 we said don’t shake hands – we’re not at that point yet,” Mills said.

Auburn Schools Superintendent Katy Grondin said that absent any specific directions from the state or Maine School Management Association, her schools “continue to implement our universal precaution measures.” That includes hand-washing, encouraging the flu shot and monitoring reasons for absences.

Lewiston Superintendent Todd Finn echoed those comments, saying the same precautions as avoiding the flu apply: Cleaning high-touch surfaces, covering coughs, avoiding sharing personal items, monitoring symptoms.

“At this point, we watch developments closely and prevent the spread of any germs or viruses daily,” he said. “We are business as usual in (Lewiston Public Schools), but we maintain hypervigilance in terms of healthy behaviors in our school communities.”


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