What a difference some sunlight makes.

In recent days, as cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, were being confirmed across the country, though not in Maine, the Mills administration fell short. Officials released only the most general information on the few Maine residents who had been tested for the disease, in contrast to what their counterparts in states such as Massachusetts and Vermont were regularly providing.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the most informed person on the matter, was not always available to reporters, and detailed questions sent to the CDC were not fully answered.

However, on Tuesday Shah held the first of what his office says will be daily informational sessions as testing ramps up in Maine. He discussed the steps the state has taken to prepare, and its strategy moving forward. He put the number of tests conducted so far in Maine and the risk to its residents in context. And he offered common-sense tips for staying healthy.

It is the sort of transparency that is necessary for an outbreak that is still developing, and which could affect Maine in any number of ways.

“At times like this, when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air,” Rajiv Rimal, a professor and chairman of the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Press Herald last week, “it is in the best interest of public health officials to be as forthcoming as they can.”

Honesty and transparency are critical in building a public health response based on knowledge and trust. To take even the minor steps being asked of Mainers now — regular and vigorous handwashing, social distancing, voluntary travel restrictions — the public needs to trust that those life changes are worthwhile. If disruptions grow more severe, the importance of that having that trust in place grows too.

And disruptions are coming. The University of Maine System is prohibiting all university-sponsored non-essential travel and encouraging students to stay on campus during spring break to lessen the chance of infection. The Maine Department of Education and K-12 school systems are working on remote learning plans if it becomes necessary to close schools.

Elsewhere, Harvard joined a number of other schools in canceling in-person classes until further notice. Washington state, where the coronavirus has killed at least 22 people, has announced a number of changes designed to make it easier for workers to isolate themselves.

On Tuesday in Italy, a country with 60 million people and an advanced health care system, the premier banned all but the most important travel. It is now one of at least 14 countries that have closed all schools.

In countries that have responded poorly to the coronavirus, growth has been exponential. Where the response has been decisive and in line with established best practices, growth has been contained.

It is unclear where the U.S. is heading. In many areas, public health has been gutted. Testing is way behind where it should be, and the conflicting responses from the federal government — including misleading and false statements from President Trump — are not comforting.

Mainers can’t be sure how the outbreak will affect them, or what will be asked of them. It’s up to health officials to keep that uncertainty from turning to fear or confusion. Tuesday’s briefing was a good start.


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