The Mills administration plans to open two alternative care sites at arenas in Portland and Bangor to help Maine’s hospital system handle an anticipated surge in coronavirus patients in the coming weeks.

Gov. Janet Mills announced the temporary facilities – planned for the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland and the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor – on Tuesday as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced two additional deaths from COVID-19.

While Maine only added 20 confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday, raising the total to 519, health officials know that because of limited testing the actual number of infections is much higher, and they are bracing for a potential spike in cases based on other states’ experiences. Maine CDC officials are also using complex modeling to develop various planning scenarios to anticipate demand for critical care hospital beds and ventilators.

Mills said that “for now, adequate hospital beds are available across the state” and 184 beds could be converted to critical care beds if they are needed for COVID-19 patients. But the alternative care sites will be located outside of hospitals in the event of a surge, Mills said during an afternoon briefing.

“I hope that we never need to use these sites, but we cannot afford to wait to find out,” Mills said. “Building them now will ensure that if the need does arise, we will be prepared and Maine people will be cared for, and Maine people will survive.”

Mills has tapped the Maine National Guard and the Maine Emergency Management Agency to set up the temporary facilities. The Cross arena in Portland will be capable of holding at least 100 beds, while the Cross arena in Bangor will be set up for 50 beds.

Mills said the new sites could be established by next week and staffed shortly thereafter. MaineHealth and Mercy Hospital will be involved in the Portland site, while Northern Light Health and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor will assist at that city’s site, Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials said.

Additionally, DHHS plans to make $10 million in supplemental payments available to Maine hospitals, many of which are struggling financially as the pandemic forces the cancellation or postponement of non-critical surgeries and appointments.

During the briefing, Mills also announced she was working with the Maine Secretary of State’s Office to reschedule the June 9 primary election to July 14.

CASES STILL RISING

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, reported that the two additional deaths were a man in his 50s and a woman in her 80s, both of whom were from Cumberland County. No additional information was released about the individuals, consistent with Maine CDC privacy policies.

Just shy of 100 people have been hospitalized during their sickness, but 176 individuals – or roughly one-third of all cases – have recovered from the disease. The median age of COVID-19 patients in Maine is 55.

Testing for COVID-19 is growing in Maine as more private, commercial labs join the Maine CDC to analyze tests. Shah reported Tuesday that the CDC lab can run 300 to 400 tests per day. And Martins Point Health Care announced Tuesday that it will receive Maine’s first supply of Abbott Laboratories’ COVID-19 tests, which can produce results within minutes.

Maine had a total of 301 intensive care beds on Tuesday, of which 132 were available, and a total of 333 ventilators, of which 272 were available. The state also has 232 alternative ventilators, the agency said after the briefing.

The 519 total cases announced Tuesday represents a 71 percent increase over the 303 cases reported one week earlier when Mills announced a statewide, mandatory “stay-at-home” order.

That order, which is slated to remain in effect until at least April 30, prohibits travel except for essential activities, such as picking up food or prescription drugs, caring for another individual, tending to livestock, child care, outdoor exercise or recreation, or commuting to an essential job.

Cumberland County accounts for nearly half of the cases, 253 of the 519, while York County was reporting 115 cases. Every other county in the state except Piscataquis is now reporting at least one positive test result for COVID-19.

Both Shah and Mills credited Maine residents, in general, for heeding the stay-at-home order and for maintaining the recommended 6-foot distance from others when in public. But they urged continued vigilance.

“State government has put in place the measures requiring physical distancing wherever possible,” Mills said. “It is now up to Maine people, all of you, and it is a test of humanity. And only time will tell whether we pass that test.”

IS IT ENOUGH?

Shah and a small group of epidemiologists are using several internationally respected modeling systems to estimate potential need for hospital beds, ventilators and other supplies in the weeks and months ahead.

The resulting models – each with its own limitations or strengths – have yielded a wide range of estimates for how the coronavirus pandemic will play out in Maine. A University of Washington model estimates Maine could experience 115 deaths through August. A Johns Hopkins University model, meanwhile, estimates anywhere from a few hundred to roughly 1,000 deaths, depending on Mainers’ success in reducing the transmission rate.

The one similarity across the models, Shah said during the briefing, is that each predict that “aggressive, intensive physical distancing can reduce the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the demand on the health care system.”

While those models suggest Maine may have adequate ICU beds and ventilators to cover the potential surge, Shah has emphasized those are uncertain estimates based on a host of variables.

So the modeling exercises were a factor in the Mills administration’s decision to move forward with opening the two “alternative care units” in Portland and Bangor.

Shah said Monday that his agency, DHHS, the National Guard and the Maine Emergency Management Agency also are developing plans for additional sites in western and eastern Maine, if needed. Maine’s network of small, rural hospitals has been preparing for a spike in cases as well.

The administration said additional details about staffing and equipping the sites will be announced at a later date. But the administration has been working with the MaineHealth hospital system, Northern Light Health, Central Maine Healthcare, MaineGeneral Health and the Maine Hospital Association on the “surge planning.”

City officials in Portland and Bangor, as well as county leaders in Cumberland and Penobscot counties, also have been involved with planning for the alternate care sites.

“The people of Cumberland County own the Cross Insurance Arena,” Cumberland County Manager James Gailey said in a statement. “It’s here for them now, to provide comfort and care. We’ll do everything we can to support the state and medical communities in making the arena a safe place for Maine people to heal.”

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