AUGUSTA — The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Maine climbed to 142 on Wednesday, an increase of 24 since Tuesday and 100 more than one week earlier, as state officials repeated their call for more testing supplies and protective equipment.

While the number of negative coronavirus tests also continues to climb, standing at 3,177 as of Wednesday, Maine is seeing the type of “rapid rise” in new cases that has played out elsewhere before the disease reached its peak, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Where Maine sits on that curve remains unknown, Shah said Wednesday, but he urged Mainers to continue minimizing exposure through physical distancing.

“We do anticipate and expect that this rate of increase will continue,” Shah said during his daily news briefing. “Where we are in the curve right now, based on models that we’ve seen … we are in that part of the curve where we do anticipate seeing additional cases, both in number and in geographic locations in the state.”

Cumberland County remains the hot spot for coronavirus in Maine, accounting for 87 of the 142 cases statewide, according to a breakdown provided by the Maine CDC. But the number of confirmed cases in York County is growing rapidly as well – up to 23 on Wednesday – and the virus has now been confirmed in 10 of Maine’s 16 counties.

Seventeen people were hospitalized as of Wednesday with the COVID-19 disease caused by coronavirus. There have been no reported deaths in Maine, although the experiences of states to the south suggest that is likely to change.

Nationwide, there were 54,453 confirmed cases and 737 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, there were 416,686 confirmed cases and 18,589 deaths reported by the World Health Organization.

Just minutes before Wednesday’s briefing, the Maine CDC lab confirmed a positive COVID-19 case in an employee at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ large office in Lewiston, prompting DHHS to close the office.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said she took that step to protect the health of other agency employees as well as the public. Roughly 60 percent of DHHS employees statewide were already working remotely and the department had limited the public’s use of the state’s 16 DHHS offices to dropping off paperwork.

But Lambrew acknowledged the closure of the Lewiston office will affect employees and clients, including families served by the state’s child welfare and social services programs. Lambrew said staff and families are being provided information on how to continue accessing services during the closure.

“My heart goes out to my workers and the workers throughout Maine, the families throughout Maine, who have been affected, because this does hit home,” Lambrew told reporters.

DHHS is also implementing changes ordered by Gov. Janet Mills to expand telehealth systems that would enable the state’s health care providers to serve Maine residents remotely and require insurers to pay for those services. Additionally, the Mills administration has relaxed requirements to make it easier for health care professionals who are licensed in other states to quickly gain emergency licensing to provide in-person or telehealth serves in Maine.

The economic and societal effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine continues to evolve as well.

Beginning Wednesday evening, Portland residents were ordered to “stay at home” except to seek out food, medical care, to exercise or to perform other essential activities. The Mills administration, meanwhile, ordered on Tuesday a two-week closure of all “public-facing” locations of nonessential businesses, including fitness centers and hair salons.

Acadia National Park announced Wednesday that Park Loop Road and Ocean Drive will be closed to the public as well as all carriage roads, restrooms, campgrounds and visitor-services locations. While the park always offers more limited services during the offseason, Acadia officials did not give a time frame for when those services would return.

Concord Coach Lines also announced that it will suspend all bus service starting Saturday after it was advised by New Hampshire authorities that a rider on four buses had contracted COVID-19. The company typically runs buses daily between 17 Maine towns and Boston.

Like many other states, Maine is experiencing both a backlog of tests for COVID-19 and a potential shortage of the personal protective equipment – such as masks, gloves and surgical gowns – needed by health care workers.

Shah said there are currently about 1,300 tests waiting to be processed as the Maine CDC lab gives first priority to tests for hospitalized patients as well as health care workers and first responders. The state received a shipment on Wednesday of additional chemicals that will enable more testing, Shah said, and additional commercial labs have joined the testing effort in Maine this week.

However, Shah said the state’s testing capacity is still too limited, so the CDC is moving forward with acquiring a new testing “platform” that would increase capacity.

The lack of testing and delayed results is a critical issue for Maine’s nursing homes, said Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, the medical director for three long-term care facilities in southern Maine.

Maine’s 93 nursing homes and more than 200 assisted-living facilities have been largely ignored when it comes to testing, said Fazeli, spokesman for the Maine Medical Directors Association. That’s a problem because 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths are among people age 65 and older, Fazeli said, and some facilities are using up scarce masks, gloves and other personal protective gear because they must assume a patient has the disease until they receive test results.

“We need test results within hours, or at least within a day, so we can incorporate them into our care plans,” Fazeli said. “It’s no good if we have to wait.”

Shah said the state has received additional supplies of protective equipment, but not enough to meet the state’s needs. He said the state is continuing to press the federal government to release more supplies, which are critically needed by health care workers.

“What we have received is not yet fully what we need, and we continue to support any moves by the federal government to increase both the supply and the speed of distribution of protective equipment from the national stockpile,” Shah said.

Maine is also asking hospitals, beginning Wednesday, to report not only their numbers of  intensive care unit beds and ventilators, but also their supply stocks of personal protective equipment, Shah said.

Shah emphasized that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, differs from the flu because COVID-19 spreads more aggressively and may be from five to 20 times more fatal, based on preliminary epidemiological information. He also noted that the health care system is under stress from the coronavirus in part because many people in Maine, which has the nation’s oldest population, are already being treated for the flu.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.

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