COVID-19: Maine update 3/24/2020

How the numbers have changed since my last update on March 17, 2020. Sources: Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Interactive Map and the Maine CDC. (Bear in mind that I am writing this at 9:00 am EDT.)

  • Number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world: Was 183,372 and is at this moment 392,331.
  • Number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States: Was 4661 and is at this moment 46.450.
  • Number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine: Was 17 and is at this moment 107.

What do the numbers mean? What’s being done here in Maine to help “flatten the curve”? What can we do as individuals? Lots of questions and one of the people I trust for answers is Dora Anne Mills. She was the director of the Maine CDC and the State’s Health Officer for 14 years. She is currently the Chief Health Improvement Officer for MaineHealth.

Dr. Mills has been sharing information about COVID-19 on her Facebook page. She calls them Not-So-Brief COVID-19 Updates. Because not everyone is on Facebook or has access to the information, with her permission, I will be sharing some of them on the Catching Health blog. This is her latest update.

Not-So-Brief COVID-19 Update. March 24, 6:30 AM:

The sacrifices being made to flatten the epidemic curve are dragging long coattails. The first eye-opener for me was last week, just after restaurants were closed to in-house dining. With only 20 of us working in-person at MaineHealth headquarters (the rest working remotely), one or two of us heads out on Congress Street to pick up lunch every day. It’s a way we can try to support local businesses. One day, two co-workers returned with lunch from a business that opens at 7 AM. They said when they arrived at the place, the two people working told them we were their first customers that day. It was 1 PM.

Walking down Congress Street, there is very little traffic – on the sidewalks and the street. Many businesses are closed (though some are open for pick up and delivery) and it seems like every day I see another business that has been trying to eke by, close “indefinitely”. Even Reny’s, a backbone of many main streets, closed for the time being. And a few miles north, the iconic L.L. Bean’s flagship store closed a few days ago, breaking an almost 70-year tradition of being open 24 hours per day, with extremely rare exceptions (e.g. JFK and LL Bean’s funerals). They even had to install locks on the doors, since there were none. (Fortunately, they are still open 24 x 7 online.)

Only 10 days after our first case of COVID-19 in Maine, most of us already know a number of people who have lost their jobs as well as families who may have to close their businesses for good. The sacrifices many are making in this grand experiment to stop the spread of this virus are astounding, and also come with their own health risks, especially as financial and other stress rise. As we count the “cases” of COVID-19, we will also need to count the cases of people losing their jobs and family businesses. I’m not against the mandated social distancing strategies that are being used – social distancing is a blunt but necessary tool in the face of a pandemic with no known cure or vaccine – but it’s increasingly evident that there are consequences to these mandates we may all play a role in helping to address.

Along those lines, besides government assistance that is being rolled out at the state and federal levels, Quincy Hentzel, executive director of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, worked together with colleagues in the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Association of Maine, and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, to pull together a great website called Pay It Forward Maine with creative ideas on how we can each give money or time to make sure when we get to other side of this pandemic, the lights are still on downtown.

Maine’s business community – despite its own stressors – has also stepped up in remarkable ways to help. We have experienced an outpouring of companies and individuals asking how they can assist. About 10 days ago, I got a call from L.L. Bean’s executive team. I assumed they wanted advice on how they could make sure their stores were practicing good hygiene and social distancing (they were open at that time). Instead, their first question was “how can we help?” We reviewed their various resources, such as staff, equipment, and facilities. Since then, they’ve been working with our supply chain staff on strategies they can assist with. And I realized afterward that as they were calling to see how they could help, they must have already made the most painful decision to close their flagship store.

Another company, Flowfold, located in Gorham and known for making sports wallets and similar gear – contacted us on how they may help, and specifically, if they could manufacture some needed PPE (personal protective equipment). I sent them the link to the 3M catalog on healthcare PPE. Within hours, they sent a photo of a face and eye shield they thought they could produce. They then worked with our supply chain and financial staff, and as of sometime this week, they will have produced 1,000 of them. That is 8 days from the first email they sent! (For more examples of Maine manufacturers helping MaineHealth and other health organizations, see this Portland Press Herald article.)

Many other Maine companies have stepped up to the plate in a variety of other ways. For instance, Wex, along with other companies, worked throughout February to build technology capabilities so employees could work from home if the need arose. When the executive order came that banned gatherings, their 4,700 employees worldwide, including 1,500 in Maine transitioned to working remotely. That’s a major contribution to flattening the curve.

Another local company, TissuePlus in Bangor, is putting people to work at the Downeast Baileyville paper mill, producing toilet paper from 7:30 AM to 10:30 PM to meet the epidemic in demand. (See this Bangor Daily News article.)

I should mention that we have been touched and grateful to the many who have reached out, wanting to sew face masks. Although the need could arise, at this point in time, we are trying to maintain the use of surgical masks so as to provide the best proven protection for our care team members. But as with any pandemic, things could change. The most predictable thing about epidemics is their unpredictability.

Besides the impacts on our downtowns, I am also noticing other consequences of the pandemic on everyday life. It suddenly occurred to me yesterday that I’ve not filled up my gas tank in two weeks, and it’s still 2/3 full. That seems remarkable since I’m still commuting to work. Then when I started thinking of all of the people who are now working from home, including in our largest metropolitan areas – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, as well as countless other cities, and the many factories that have been closed in China, and the surge in walkers and bikers seen here in Maine and elsewhere, I wondered about the impact this pandemic may be having on air pollution, and maybe – just maybe – even on climate change. Perhaps there will be profound lessons and changes in our lives that will provide a silver lining and different types of coattails to the pandemic’s long list of tragedies.

And after limping through feeding a teenager and young adult child the last two weeks through take out, delivery, and digging out freezer-burned packages from the refrigerator, I finally managed to squeeze in a trip to the grocery store this weekend. I was excited to see that I qualify for the senior hour at local grocery stores (though a bit disappointed that the young man stationed at the entrance didn’t card me to make sure I qualify – LOL!). I was pleasantly surprised to see the produce section full. But as I walked further into the store, I noticed most of the shoppers were wearing masks, many wore gloves, and most seemed to hold their head down to maintain a focus on their quick trip out of isolation. My friendly “hello” to a couple of them seemed to startle. I felt sad that so many seemed so fearful.

Fresh meat and chicken were mostly gone. No toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or most cleaning materials. But there was still a great deal of food. When my daughter asked me what the shopping was like, I told her shopping for food during a pandemic in the U.S. in 2020 is still 1,000 times easier than buying food in the USSR in the early 1980s, when I spent time there and where shortages and long lines were an expected way of life. Although I could not find toilet paper after visiting another store (hopefully they’ll have some soon from TissuePlus in Bangor), and have not been able to find a bakery to make a cake for her birthday later this week (hmmm….maybe we’ll actually make one – a different type of gift!), we are very blessed and very grateful for my job, for her school transitioning smoothly to online learning, for wonderful walking opportunities in our neighborhood, for the sacrifices so many have already given to this cause of flattening the curve (which means saving lives), and for the business community in Maine that have so generously stepped up to the plate to help. Indeed, together we are one, together we are strong, and together we will get through this.

Dora Anne Mills, MD, MPH, FAAP

Podcast of Dora’s updates

Dora’s daughter started a podcast where she has been reading her mother’s updates. Here’s the link to the latest update. You’ll find the previous ones there as well.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.