Viewpoint: Coronavirus (COVID-19) proactivity

By Charles Sidman 


This opinion piece is written from my perspectives as a year-round resident with family and friends in our community, a local business owner actively participating in the tourist economy and a scientist familiar with both the realities and some of the public figures involved in the current coronavirus epidemic (likely soon to be renamed a pandemic, as cases, regions and countries are being added to the list of those affected almost daily). 

Taking a clear view of the facts, individuals already infected may show no symptoms but spread the virus to others for up to two weeks before appearing ill themselves. Most importantly, overall fatality ratios as currently estimated appear up to 30 times that of the seasonal flu (3 percent vs .1 percent, respectively), and may reach 30 percent or more for the elderly or already health-compromised.  

Policywise, days ago the federal government — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom I knew during my scientific career and respect completely — advised the elderly and those with underlying health issues to avoid cruise ships, flights and large gatherings. He also said that community isolation (meaning movement in and out, and likely also closure of public venues including schools, restaurants, theaters, lodgings, etc., as already imposed elsewhere) could become necessary locally where the epidemic continues to worsen. 

How does all this apply to Bar Harbor specifically and Maine in general? For starters, Maine has the highest median age of any U.S. state, and thus lots of elderly people especially susceptible to coronavirus. Second, Maine has intense seasonal tourist traffic and economy, including almost 200 ships scheduled to visit Bar Harbor in 2020 and 3-4 million Acadia National Park visits last year. Not only do news reports clearly show that cruise ships (including some of the same lines and ships that visit Bar Harbor) can become virtual incubators of virus transmission and infection, but typical summer sidewalks in Bar Harbor are perfect examples of the large gatherings that Dr. Fauci advises us to avoid. If and when coronavirus continues and comes to Bar Harbor this summer, our entire community may have to be quarantined, for the health of residents and visitors alike. 

This opinion piece is written to encourage discussion of preventive measures, in addition to actions to be taken after the situation has deteriorated. Measures taken now by local Town Councils up to the Governor’s office could ameliorate the impact of this virus, or by delaying make it far more chaotic and destructive to local as well as statewide health and economy. As there appears little that could reasonably be done to adequately prevent public gatherings outside, indoors or in vehicles when thousands of passengers (some of whom will almost inevitably be infected and transmitting, even if asymptomatic and unaware that they are ill at the time) pour off a cruise ship into our small town, regulating or even banning the majority of cruise ship visits to Maine until the coronavirus threat has demonstrably run its course would seem prudent. Also, recognizing that Bar Harbor hosts many land-based visitors from around the world, further measures limiting public interactions (by customer spacing or even temporary closures) may also be mandated by appropriate authorities. 

Given the above, is it fair to single out and focus initially on cruise ships and their passengers? Two arguments suggest that the answer is yes. First, when faced with a threat, one naturally deals first with the highest priority element. Countries around the world regulated travel from China and then Italy before expanding to all international visitors (cf. Israel), since the two countries named had the most initial infections and presented the greatest threat. Second, although limiting some family choices, Maine’s recent upholding of its mandatory school vaccination law recognized that the preferences of a minority do not justify endangering the majority. 

Since any control measures will definitely bring economic hardship difficult for some to bear, government support for the most economically vulnerable and affected might be in order. Control measures will likely be critical, however, to minimize the short-term impact and preserve our long-term, and post-virus, potentials. Overall, can we responsibly keep our heads in the sand and simply hope for the best? 

To close, we may be able to minimize coronavirus’ potentially devastating impact on our community’s health and economy if we act now. Let your voice be heard! 

Charles Sidman is a Bar Harbor resident, local business co-owner, and former immunologist at research institutions including the The Jackson Laboratory and the MDI Biological Laboraory. 


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