Community COVID-19 testing proposed

BAR HARBOR — The details differ, but both the state and a local task force have drafted plans to use increased testing for the new coronavirus as a way to move toward easing restrictions on travel, business and other activities. 

The local plan, developed by the Downeast COVID-19 task force, includes funding for symptomatic testing for residents, non-resident employees and visitors. It also provides for regular asymptomatic, voluntary “sentinel testing” for some front-facing employees, up to 100 tests per week, as a way to protect those employees and also allow early detection of any community transmission. 

As peak visitation season nears, all eyes have been on Governor Janet Mills, whose executive order requiring that out-of-state visitors quarantine for 14 days has drawn outcry from the lodging industry. 

As of June 1, lodging businesses may open to guests who are Maine residents or out-of-state guests who have completed a quarantine in Maine (in a home they or a family member own). Quarantine may not be completed at a commercial lodging establishment in June; that changes in July, under the phased reopening plan. 

The pressure was turned up a bit further last Friday when the U.S. Dept. of Justice weighed in on one of the lawsuits challenging the order, calling the requirement unconstitutional; the department is also backing related lawsuits in several other states. 

Also Friday, a federal judge denied a request for an injunction to halt the order while the legal challenges proceed. 

On Tuesday, the Bar Harbor Town Council agreed to a statement urging the Governor to eliminate the quarantine requirement. 

Even members of the Mills administration have called the quarantine a “blunt instrument;” the language of the most recent executive order, which took effect Sunday, says interstate travel restrictions “remain under review.” 

“Maine is one of 26 states that has implemented some form of quarantine for travelers, and, to date, no state has identified an alternative to the requirement,” Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) officials said in a statement. 

The state proposal, circulated for industry feedback this week, is to allow visitors who can prove they’ve recently tested negative for COVID-19 to forego the 14-day quarantine. 

“Guests will be strongly encouraged to get this test in their home state since Maine’s testing capacity has been largely built for its year-round residents,” the proposal states. 

DECD has indicated that some version of this plan may be released as early as the end of this week with an implementation date sometime in the near future,” the Maine Tourism Association, an industry group, said in an email to members Monday. 

“It’s kind of impractical for the volume of people who will want to come to Maine to go out and find a test,” Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight said at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting. He also said it would be unfair to put the burden of implementing the system on lodging businesses. 

The Downeast COVID-19 task force plan, by contrast, focuses on symptomatic testing; contact tracing for non-residents, which members said is a gap in the current state CDC process; and paid leave and quarantine for employees who test positive, and those they’ve come in contact with. 

“We’re prepared, I believe, to do this really quickly, like in the next two weeks,” State Rep. Brian Hubbell said Tuesday. “That would be really good, important baseline info in preparation for whatever happens this summer.” 

The plan doesn’t rely on any of the state laboratory’s capacity for testing, he said. Rather, the “sentinel testing” would be managed entirely by Mount Desert Island Hospital in partnership with The Jackson Laboratory, which plans to be analyzing up to 20,000 samples a day at its Farmington, Conn., laboratory by July. 

“We framed this when we picked the number of 100 (tests per week for rolling, asymptomatic testing of employees), that was what the hospital felt they were capable of handling in terms of supplies and what JAX was comfortable running down to Connecticut and still providing 24-hour results,” Hubbell said. 

The task force plan also includes bulk ordering of specific, high-quality ASTM-1 masks for public-facing employees; the hospital has already ordered the first batch of these, which the Chambers of Commerce will help distribute. 

The task force was convened several weeks ago by Mount Desert Island Hospital and Healthy Acadia. It includes the four MDI town managers, Chamber of Commerce leaders and the superintendent of Acadia National Park. Hubbell and State Senator Louis Luchini are working to help secure public funding for the pilot project. 

The state recently received more than $50 million in federal funds earmarked for testing, Hubbell said. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services “has talked about using some of that for building capacity in rural areas,” he said. There’s also about $13 million in a state plan “to reimburse municipalities for prevention measures, which may or may not include direct testing,” he said. 

The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the Town Council have both expressed support for the plan. The task force did not weigh in on the quarantine requirement directly, noting the members had set it aside “pending ongoing, state-level policy discussion.” 

Knight said that on a recent conference call with a group of town managers, Mills “mentioned the task force proposal a number of times,” but the DECD proposal “is different than what we’re talking about down here. Just the number of tests is difficult.” 

The state and task force plans both include symptom checks, screening or check-in disclaimers for employees and visitors, and public prevention and education efforts. 

“It’s been a great partnership from the start,” Luchini said of the task force. He said the pilot project would help protect frontline workers, “who often get forgotten about,” protect the community’s health and send a message to visitors that MDI is a safe place. 

The legislators said the pilot project could be scaled up regionally or statewide, and may also help schools and colleges safely reopen. 

“I think it’s important that we lead the way,” Luchini said. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated the frequency of testing envisioned in the task force proposal. The proposal is for up to 100 tests per week.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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