BAR HARBOR — Government and business leaders agree that widespread testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 is essential to managing and limiting the pandemic, especially as businesses and schools gradually move toward more-like-normal operations.
Rural areas of Maine including Mount Desert Island have far fewer cases of the virus than the urban centers, but as the population begins to swell with summer visitors, access to testing nearby is still severely limited.
Those limits were illustrated this week when Tim Rich, owner of The Independent Café on Main Street, learned that a regular customer was experiencing symptoms he was concerned about.
The customer reportedly told Rich he visited three different facilities Saturday before getting a COVID-19 test in Bangor, and then was told his results would take five days. Rich wasn’t sure what to do — the guidance for employers is to inform employees and anyone else of potential exposure to someone who’s ill from the virus, but what do you do while waiting for results?
“During the time period when the test result is coming back, the best thing to do for anyone who may have been exposed is to limit the likelihood that they may expose others,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Monday. “So that may involve staying home from work or their business.”
Out of an abundance of caution Saturday evening, Rich made the decision to close his café for a few days and seek a test himself.
On June 18, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued a standing order intended to make it easier for people to get a test if they don’t have a primary care doctor to make a referral, or if they can’t discuss their reason for seeking a test with their doctor in a timely way.
A standing order from the state epidemiologist also requires health insurers to make testing and screening for COVID-19 available with no deductible, copayment, or other cost sharing of any kind, including all associated costs such as processing fees and clinical evaluations.
“Both these systems are still in flux,” State Representative Brian Hubbell said Tuesday. “There isn’t widespread understanding about how (it) works.”
Some people have interpreted the standing order as a way to demand a test for any reason, but it “does not require any health care provider or COVID-19 test collection site to provide you a test,” according to a FAQ document from the CDC.
Staff of the Maine CDC are regularly updating the Maine portion of an independent website, get-tested-covid19.org, a searchable database of testing locations, Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Monday.
In Portland and Augusta, testing is more readily available, including at drugstore pharmacies. But as of this writing, all but two of the nine testing locations listed on the site within 40 miles of the Bar Harbor ZIP code have red alerts noting “doctor’s screening required” and “testing may be limited to people with symptoms or known exposure.”
“Health care systems may for different reasons have a different approach to offering or utilizing testing,” Shah said Monday. He also said there are medical reasons it’s helpful to have a physician referral before being tested.
“The first is that it can take a little bit of time after someone has been exposed to the virus before the virus has reproduced enough inside the body for it to be detected,” he said. “So, it’s also not just a question of whether to get tested, but of when to get tested as well.
“If this individual had quick, easy access to rapid testing, that may be different. But in certain parts of the state, access to testing differs.”
There are plans in the works for expanded testing on Mount Desert Island, especially for front-facing employees in seasonal businesses. MDI Hospital CEO Art Blank said a pilot program for 100 tests per week will be a partnership with The Jackson Laboratory, state DHHS and private funding.
“I’m very optimistic that very soon we will be able to shake hands on a way to work together at the state and local level to keep people on MDI safe,” Commissioner Jean Lambrew said in a media briefing Friday.
“All this is, is a pilot testing program,” Hubbell said. “It should not be confused at all with (the state’s) expansion of testing capacity.”
As for that expansion, he said, “there’s a lot of expectation about July 1 as some sort of milestone related to accessibility for testing.”
Meanwhile, The Jackson Laboratory has announced other partnerships for use of its Connecticut laboratory facility to analyze patient samples for the presence of the virus. These include Maine Maritime Academy, for a simulated training cruise, and the University of Maine system.