The OceanView at Falmouth retirement community was one of the first places in Maine recorded coronavirus cases early on in the pandemic. Falmouth now has seen the highest rate of coronavirus cases in Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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A bedroom community outside Portland is now the town with the highest rate of coronavirus cases in the state, more than a month after the state began releasing town-by-town coronavirus case data.

Falmouth, with about 12,500 residents, had recorded 152 cases of the coronavirus as of July 12, translating into about 12 cases for every 1,000 residents, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than half of Falmouth’s cases have happened in nursing homes with large outbreaks, and its recent ascension to the top of the list demonstrates how quickly granular virus data can change and the pitfalls of using that data to gauge where the virus is active in the state as the pandemic continues, according to Maine’s top public health official.

“As [the virus] moves across the state, areas that were previously higher areas of concentration, as those cases are resolved and individuals recover, may shift elsewhere,” Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said Thursday.

For instance, when the state first released town-by-town COVID-19 case data in early June, Medway in northern Penobscot County had the highest rate of cases, with about eight cases per 1,000 residents. However, that town hasn’t seen any new cases in recent weeks, so its per-capita case rate has dropped to sixth in the state. Medway, with a population of fewer than 1,500, has seen 12 cases since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Towns surrounding Portland — the epicenter of the virus with 766 cumulative cases and 11.87 cases per 1,000 residents — continue to see higher rates of the illness. The data, however, are limited because they don’t include ZIP codes where 50 or fewer people live, and they provide ranges of case numbers for places that have seen five or fewer cases. In addition, the data only show total infections since the start of the pandemic, not the number of active cases.

Shah continued to urge caution against using the data as indicators of where the virus may be absent, noting that individuals traveling through communities without any recorded cases could transmit the virus.

“On a week-to-week basis, the complexion of the outbreak in Maine could change very, very rapidly,” he said.

In particular, Falmouth has seen large outbreaks at long-term care facilities. In April, Falmouth by the Sea became the fifth long-term care facility in the state to record an outbreak that ultimately reached 75 cases. In late June, the Sedgewood Commons nursing home saw an outbreak with 36 cases.

The OceanView at Falmouth retirement community also recorded 11 cases early on in the pandemic.

Hope Cahan, a town councilor in Falmouth, said part of the town’s high rate of infection could also be a result of its proximity to Portland, where many Falmouth residents work.

But Falmouth has proactively responded to the pandemic, Cahan said. Most businesses have adapted to curbside and outdoor service, and residents have been consistent with wearing masks.

“I’ve been really impressed with the community,” she said.