BAR HARBOR — When Marc Gousse moved into the superintendent’s office for the Mount Desert Island Regional School system in 2016, he hung a sign in the office restroom that says, “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands.”
That’s also the advice he’s giving now, when he gets questions about what local schools are doing in response to the outbreak of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus and its associated respiratory disease (COVID-19) elsewhere in the country and world.
As of Monday, there are no identified cases of the virus in Maine. But there are positive cases in New England.
“We are taking our guidance from the existing pandemic planning that was formulated during the H1N1 outbreak and most recently reconsidered during the worldwide Ebola scare,” Andrew Sankey, head of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency, said in an email to local officials Sunday.
Keeping calm, looking for information from reliable sources, frequent hand washing with soap and warm water and minimizing physical contact “are the things we’ve been asked to emphasize,” Gousse said, by public health authorities.
It’s always advised that anyone not feeling well should stay home from school or work, he said. Because of the evolving situation with the virus, it’s extra important for everyone in that situation to contact their primary care physician or clinic.
“Those health professionals are the ones that will identify if this is something that is elevated and needs to be paid more attention to,” Gousse said.
The schools have not been asked to do any additional screenings or ask questions, for example, about who’s traveling where or when.
“I don’t think it’s really our place as schools to offer additional insights or protocols unless we’ve been authorized to do so,” Gousse said.
At MDI Hospital, a team has been monitoring the situation closely since January, according to spokeswoman Oka Hutchins.
Infection Preventionist Barbara MacPike and Infection Control Committee Chair Dr. Julius Krevans, Jr. are in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
“MDI Hospital has a plan in place to handle any patient that presents with suspicion of COVID-19, as well as a pandemic plan in place should the need arise,” Hutchins said. This plan includes a variety of scenarios — including measures that may need to be taken during the summer tourist season — and will be adjusted in the coming months as the situation develops.”
In Washington State, 16 schools and one college closed Monday, according to the Seattle Times. School closures, and cancellations of large gatherings including a Seafood Expo North America in Boston originally planned for next week, are part of what public health experts call “social distancing strategies.”
The strategies “delay and flatten the epidemic curve,” former Maine Centers for Disease Control head Dr. Dora Mills wrote in a Facebook post. “They’re already implemented in bad influenza seasons,” she notes, including the closing of some Maine schools this winter.
Gousse said that MDI school officials are “thinking and talking about … how teaching and learning can continue” in the event of a need to take similar action here.
“We are not there yet,” he said. “But in the event that we may be there, we’ll be ready.
“However this unfolds, we’ll work with people to manage what we have to do to keep people safe.”
Headlines about cruise ship passengers quarantined far from home also have MDI residents wondering about the upcoming cruise season here, where the first ship is scheduled to arrive April 25.
Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group to which most of the lines that visit Bar Harbor belong, is requiring member lines to conduct illness screening upon boarding for passengers who have traveled from places designated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control within 14 days, according to a statement released Wednesday.
The lines are also to “deny boarding to all persons who have travelled from, visited or transited via airports in South Korea, Iran, China, including Hong Kong and Macau, and any municipality in Italy subject to lockdown (quarantine) measures by the Italian government.”
Under a CDC Vessel Sanitation program, cruise ships are required to log and report numbers of passengers and crew who say they have symptoms of gastrointestinal illness. Last year, the AIDAdiva reported two norovirus outbreaks affecting 5.7 percent and 3.7 percent of passengers during cruises which included visits to Bar Harbor.
MDI Hospital has information about the virus on its website, mdihospital.org, and will provide updates as new information emerges.
Information and planning tools for governments, businesses and households is available at ready.gov/pandemic, a website hosted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.