Dr. Dora Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, addresses graduates of the University of Maine at Fort Kent on May 12, 2018. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

Gov. Janet Mills’ office changed quickly to keep her safe from COVID-19 just after Maine’s first case was detected in March 2020.

One of the state’s top public health voices volunteered a range of options. That was Dr. Dora Mills, the governor’s youngest sibling and the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth.

It was one of several emails from January 2020 to the end of March 2020 in which the governor’s sister was kept informed of developments and asked for perspective on issues shaping the early days of the pandemic.

The emails, obtained by the Bangor Daily News under a public records request, highlight Mills’ political family as a unique asset in her kitchen cabinet. Both Dora and Peter Mills, the governor’s older brother and the head of the Maine Turnpike Authority, shared notes both informal and formal as the state scrambled to fight the pandemic.

Both the Democratic governor and her sister say advice came from medical officials all over the state and noted their communications came before formal informational channels were developed. Dora Mills couched her role as that of a “concerned sister” early on.

“They were very scary days at the beginning, when we were hearing news out of New York about bodies in trucks,” she said. “We didn’t want that to happen in Maine.”

After talking with a top infectious disease physician at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Dora Mills proposed a list of actions: keeping the governor, now 74, at the Blaine House, making sure state troopers in charge of her security remain isolated when not with the governor, for their families to isolate and not allowing staff to get near her if they had not been isolating.

“For your piece [sic] of mind, I think we have been doing a good job following these guidelines,” a member of Gov. Mills’ security detail wrote to Dora Mills in March 2020.

The first few months of the pandemic were a frantic time. Mills declared a civil emergency three days after the first COVID-19 case was discovered, following that through the end of March with stricter gathering limits, closing businesses deemed nonessential and issuing a stay-at-home order with exceptions for work and essential shopping.

Behind the scenes, a variety of interests were vying for the governor’s attention. Her office was fielding communications from companies looking to sell protective gear and lawmakers looking for guidance, emails show. Those emails were forwarded to Dora Mills as well. The governor also kept her sister informed of potential outbreaks and asked for an update on a district attorney’s long wait for a result from their own COVID-19 test, emails show.

At one point, Peter Mills advised his sister against instituting a strict shelter-in-place order, saying it would affect businesses unevenly and would confine people inside when there was no risk of being outside, as long as they remained six feet apart.

“Shelter in place is an unenforceable meat axe remedy best reserved for active shooter situations,” Peter Mills wrote Gov. Mills on March 24, 2020.

Days later, the governor’s “Stay Healthy At Home” mandate was released. It designated some businesses as essential, while allowing for outdoor exercise. It also restricted capacity limits in those businesses. In a recent interview, Peter Mills said he could not recall what caused him to send the email. But he assumed it might have been in response to an article or a question.

“She’s got experts to talk to,” he said. “She doesn’t need me on issues like that.”

That the two sisters spoke with each other frequently on a health topic was not surprising to Paul Mills, a Farmington lawyer and the governor’s brother. She tends to defer to those with expertise on a subject and balance that against intuition, even in the family, he said. Other Mills are not always looped in on official decisions, he said, and he does not expect to be.

“She has very talented advisers who are professionally on her staff and certainly should defer to them,” he said.

Lindsay Crete, a Mills spokesperson, said siblings are just one source of advice the governor seeks out. They do not outweigh the experience and perspective of others, she said in an email.

“The Governor fundamentally believes that good public policy is made by taking into consideration a wide array of viewpoints and arguments that deepen her understanding of issues and that broaden her thinking — even those she may disagree with,” she said.

Mills’ early pandemic restrictions were not controversial at the time. Democrats and Republicans quickly agreed to adjourn the Legislature just after the first case was discovered, handing the governor sweeping powers to direct the state during the pandemic. By May, top legislative Republicans called for the repeal of Mills’ emergency powers.

There was no problem with the siblings communicating, said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who added that he would have done the same in her shoes if he had a doctor in the family. But he reiterated criticism that lawmakers were not consulted enough.

“It’s not so much that she was communicating with her siblings. It’s that she wasn’t communicating so much with anyone else,” he said.

Mills grew up in a political family with a mostly Republican history. Her father, S. Peter Mills Jr., was a longtime state lawmaker and served as Maine’s U.S. attorney. Peter Mills was a lawmaker who ran for governor twice as a Republican. Dora Mills ran the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention under former Gov. John Baldacci.  

Baldacci comes from a Bangor political family of his own. It was difficult at times for siblings to not want to be actively involved when he was governor, Baldacci said. If there were disagreements, they had a rule: never air it publicly or give a warning if something was going in the newspaper.

“[Gov. Mills] is fortunate to have such a wide network of people who are in her kitchen cabinet,” he said.