Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Maine alone in New England in not reporting pandemic cases by town

Maine is now the only state in New England that won't release the number of Covid-19 cases by town, rather than by county.

Vermont on Monday introduced the higher-resolution reporting. Rhode Island releases their case information on a zip code level.

As I report in today's Portland Press Herald, many experts say this is a mistake at this stage in the pandemic, especially as the policy conversation turns to how one considers loosening social distancing restrictions -- often a municipal decision in Maine and other "home rule" states. Maine has also lagged the other five New England states in many measures of data sharing, and remains the only state in the region that can't report negative test numbers on a daily basis.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Remembering the Malaga Island tragedy

Earlier this month my Press Herald colleagues asked me to record a video bit for the "this day in Maine" Bicentennial of Statehood feature on a story I reported on closely before I joined the paper in 2012: the Malaga Island tragedy.

It's an awful story -- a shameful official act by Maine's government exceeded only by its past treatment of the Passamaquoddy and other tribes -- featuring racism, social darwinism, and plain old corruption. I first learned of the 1911-12 saga while researching my history of Maine, The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier, and followed with a story in Down East about Maine's bungled attempt to apologize (no longer online). I also wrote about it for the Press Herald shortly after joining the staff.

Hope you appreciate the brief video. For more on Malaga, start with my former Salt Institute colleague Rob Rosenthal's excellent and important audio documentary, Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Allocations of N95 masks from federal stockpile weren't distributed to states on per capita basis

As states have scrounged for supplies of N95 masks and other critical personal protective equipment, federal authorities have repeatedly said the state-by-state allocations from the Strategic National Stockpile were made on a per capita basis.

This is not the case.

My analysis of the data is in today's Portland Press Herald. Teaser: it's not based on political loyalty or apparent pandemic exposure either, but the federal government is unwilling to explain what logic was in fact used.

Maine's Congressional delegation is largely outraged by the lack of transparency, except for the one Republican of the four, Sen. Susan Collins, whose office wouldn't answer questions about it.

Details in the story.

[Update, 4/23/20: This story was picked up by the national Associated Press wire and also featured in today's USA Today News from the Fifty States feature.]

I wrote on another, distinctly handled, federal stockpile issue last week: the allocation of ventilators.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Traveling via book? Lonely Planet recommends Lobster Coast for Maine

The pandemic has us all grounded, with transportation cut back, unnecessary travel dangerous, and most international borders sealed off. But the folks at Lonely Planet, the travel guide company whose guides got me around the Communist bloc in 1989, have compiled a list of books to let you travel the United States without leaving your home.

I'm honored that for Maine they chose my 2004 cultural and environmental history, The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier. Readers of the recent Press Herald series "Colony" will recognize many of the themes within, but there's much more about what makes our people tick. It's a story Lonely Planet says is "essentially the colonial, East Coast version of The Deadliest Catch."

Especially honored to be included alongside their choices for other states like Maryland -- A Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates -- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (for Massachusetts); and John McPhee's Pine Barrens (for New Jersey.)

So stay safe out there.... and happy armchair travels.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Covid-19 hospitalizations in much of Maine have flattened

The effort to "flatten the curve" is literally an attempt to reduce the spread of the pandemic so as to prevent a sudden spike in critically ill patients that overwhelms hospitals, their very limited supply of personal protective equipment, and scarce ventilators to keep the most sick alive.

In an exclusive story in today's Portland Press Herald, I report that that effort here in Maine has worked, at least for now.

I collected confirmed Covid-19 in-patient counts directly from the three largest hospital networks in the state back to the start of the epidemic here, broken out by individual hospital so as to reveal the trend lines in different parts of the state. The very good news: instead of the spike Maine hospitals were bracing for two weeks ago, inpatient numbers have crested and flattened almost everywhere, and had a modest decline in several hospitals, including Maine Medical Center, which has handled roughly half of all hospitalizations in this state.

But, as you can read in the story, while this is welcome news in terms of protecting our hospitals, it's in no way an indication that we can safely scale back the social distancing measures that have blunted the disease's spread. And the unfolding crisis in the state's long term care facilities could undo this positive trend if state officials and health care workers are unable to head it off. Indeed, Maine CDC director Nirav Shah told me last night that's the scenario that keeps him up at night.

[Update, 5/1/2020: I revisited the data a week later and a week after that; hospitalizations continued to gently fall or plateau.]

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Maine and 37 other states got zero ventilators from the federal stockpile. Why?

In yesterday's Portland Press Herald I tried to answer the question: "Why did Maine -- and 37 other states -- get zero ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile?"

The answer isn't entirely clear, beyond the fact that the federal stockpile was woefully understocked for a crisis of this magnitude. Many -- but not all -- of the states that did receive  some of the circa 9000 on hand are hot spots. Other places that appear vulnerable got none. Colorado aside, there's not a clear political pattern in ventilator allocation (though that may not be the case for personal protection equipment, a separate issue.)

As you'll read in the story, even when adding in "alternative ventilators" like CPAP machines, converted anesthesia devices and the like, it leaves Maine short if things reach the more dire planning scenarios the Maine CDC has been working with. It all may depend on whether Mainers can slow the spread enough in the coming weeks to prevent a spike in the state's ICUs.

One other Maine coronavirus update from me in today's Press Herald: the Chebeague Island ferry will now transport emergency COVID-19 patients after all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Maine lags rest of New England in pandemic data reporting

In yesterday's Portland Press Herald, I explore why Maine lags the other five New England states in the daily reporting of all sorts of pandemic-related data, including the fact that it is alone in being unable to report the number of negative tests on a daily basis.

The Maine CDC, which was weakened by eight years of disfavor under Gov. Paul LePage, has also been behind in being able to tally the number of Covid-19 patients hospitalized each day, in reporting non-resident cases confirmed here, and in knowing how many ICU beds and ventilators are available.

A reader asked on Twitter why we would poke at an agency that, with the abdication of the federal government, is our lifeline in the pandemic. The answer: you want your lifeline to be as strong as possible before the cases start peaking, and that requires testing it constantly. That's what we'll keep doing.

Other recent Coronavirus coverage includes this look at the precarious state of the medical equipment supply chain; the strange story of a Portland based pop-up medical supplier; and the Chebeague ferry service refusing to carry suspected Covod-19 patients, even in the context of being the island's official ambulance link to the mainland (updating soon.)

[Update, 3/16/20: The Maine CDC revamped their website a bit today, providing more of the information they lacked and other New England states were providing. Negative test reporting still a challenge, but weekly numbers now posted there too.]

Friday, April 10, 2020

The American Nations and the Geography of the Pandemic Response

Depressingly, as the global coronavirus pandemic unfolded, President Trump took measures that helped it along: denying it existed; denying it was more serious than the seasonal flu; denying it was no longer contained; claiming it was a hoax perpetrated by his enemies in politics and the media. State and local leaders have been left on their own to decide what to do.

The result has been a macabre laboratory of federalism, where states decided whether or not to protect their citizens and economy from a clear and inevitable threat. The geography of the response has been sobering.

As I wrote in American Nations and further explored in its sequel, American Character, the fundamental philosophical divide between these regional cultures is over the question of how best to organize American society. Three large and important ones have cultures that see freedom’s path lying almost exclusively with individual liberty and personal sovereignty. Four other large ones prioritize the common good and the building of a free community, even if it requires sacrifices of individuals. Corona-19 proved a test of these values.

Over at Washington Monthly you can read the disturbing match of our centuries-old cultural geography to the geography of the pandemic response. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

In Maine, state having difficulty gathering critical pandemic data from hospitals

In the past few days I've written a couple of times on an unexpected problem with Maine's pandemic response planning: more than three weeks into the crisis, the state Center for Disease Control hasn't been able to get complete daily capacity and disease data from all of the state's hospitals.

On Thursday I reported on missing data regarding Intensive Care Unit beds and ventilators, as well as how many Covid-19 patients were using each. Apparently some hospitals -- including an unnamed large one -- hadn't been reporting any of this regularly to the CDC. Agency director Nirav Shah indicates this is now under control.

But in today's Press Herald I wrote about another problem: the CDC still doesn't know how many people are hospitalized with Covid-19 on any given day in Maine, and wasn't even asking the question until Mar. 31. I also learned the recently announced distributions of personal protective equipment are not new sources, but rather materials received in the third (and likely last) federal shipment from the Strategic National Stockpile. Hospitals say they only have enough PPE if social distancing significantly blunts the surge. The supply chain for this, as reported last week, is broken.

Wash your hands, keep your distance, watch out for each other, and stay safe out there.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Maine and the medical supply chain amid the pandemic

Everyone in the Portland Press Herald newsroom is on a full-court press to cover the pandemic and I've been following supply chain issues this week.

In today's paper I have this feature on how Maine hospitals, first responders, and long-term care facilities are scrounging around for personal protection equipment to keep their personnel safe and able to help the rest of us. It also revealed that Maine has received no ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, and only about 20 percent of the N95 masks it asked for. There are concerns that political and presidential criteria might be involved in the allocations FEMA is making to states as the cornavirus wave begins to crest across the country.

Earlier I had two stories on a pop-up Portland based medical supplier that's taken orders for millions of masks as well as Cover-19 tests and other highly sought after medical items. It turns out the owner of the firm is facing a five-count criminal indictment for securities fraud, theft by deception, and trading securities without a license and owes New Hampshire nearly a quarter million dollars in restitution and fees in a related case. But the firm -- whose public face is former Maine legislator Diane Russell -- drove a rented van to New Jersey over the weekend to collect 20,000 of the masks and deliver them to customers in eastern Massachusetts. 

Also last week I had this explainer on why the Maine CDC is only identifying coronavirus cases by county, not town.

Stay safe out there, watch out for each other, and wash your hands.