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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s first temporary medical site to treat patients who may have the new coronavirus may be built within the next week and a half, likely in the southern part of the state most affected by the virus, state officials said Thursday.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said details about where the makeshift units are still being worked out between the state and medical providers, but said initial units would be used for people exhibiting symptoms of the virus for evaluation and triage. Plans for a “full-scale external hospital” that would come later are also underway, Shah said.
The news comes as the federal government works to set up hundreds of hospitals in hard-hit areas across the country. In those places — including New York City — hospital systems are overwhelmed by patients requiring intensive care.
The state is preparing for a similar scenario in Maine, though the scope will depend on how social distancing methods are adopted. The number of confirmed cases here increased to 376 as of Thursday. Seven people have died three weeks after the first case was recorded in Maine.
[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]
Gov. Janet Mills this week ordered Maine residents to stay home and is seeking a major disaster declaration from the federal government, which would give the state access to additional monies for unemployment and disaster case management for Maine’s 16 counties as well as additional funding for the Maine National Guard.
Temporary units have been established around the world as cases of the virus have surged. They are sometimes placed in existing structures. The Javits Center in New York City was one of the first in the U.S., while the Army Corps of Engineers has been looking at hotels, dormitories, convention centers and open areas with a goal of building as many as 341 temporary hospitals, half of them in New York City, Reuters reported.
In Maine, Shah said temporary facilities could be placed in empty buildings or near existing hospitals to expand capacity. He said the units would be located in areas of the “highest need.” Maine Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Susan Faloon said Thursday that it and the CDC are working with the National Guard to inventory supplies to be used at the sites.
Faloon said southern Maine would be “likely” the location of some of the units. The majority of cases are in Cumberland and York counties, the only two where the Maine CDC has confirmed community transmission of the virus, meaning it is spreading between people who have not traveled internationally.
The type of gear needed at the facility depends on its use, Faloon said. Items like personal protective gear would be needed regardless, but items like medication, oxygen and ventilators could be needed if the site is geared toward acute care rather than triage.
Faloon said the agency is still exploring how a site would be staffed. The state could contract with a hospital or use some of the 800 medical professionals that have volunteered. It would make separate agreements for people to clean and provide security for the sites.
Dora Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth and the governor’s sister, said all major health care systems have been in contact with the Maine CDC, but stressed the first temporary unit is still in the planning stages and nothing has been finalized. She characterized the process as planning for what it would take to stand up a facility should it be needed and part of the provider’s pandemic plan.
Some entities have already created their own makeshift facilities. Portland opened the Expo center to its homeless population after two people at a homeless shelter tested positive for the virus. City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said Maine Medical Center in Portland had initially asked the city to hold the center for a temporary site but later said it was no longer needed.
Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston recently opened an 18-bed unit that only serves coronavirus patients, said hospital spokesperson Kate Carlisle.