The Woodland Pulp and St. Croix Tissue mill in Baileyville, shown in 2016 Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Washington County has been one of the Maine counties least affected by the coronavirus since the pandemic hit in March. It’s often gone weeks without recording new infections, and has maintained one of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state.

But cases in the county of 31,000 have more than doubled in the past week, to 48 on Monday from 21 a week earlier, and Washington County is seeing its rates of new daily cases and active infections exceed the statewide rates. What’s more, disease investigators haven’t traced the surge in cases to a single large outbreak or two, meaning the virus is spreading in local communities and households, and it’s much more difficult to stem the spread.

“It’s a small, tight-knit community,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Tuesday. “Those are the things that make Down East great — small, tight-knit communities — but they can also be the conditions under which COVID can spread.”

Washington County’s rising case numbers come as the rest of the state sees an uptick in new infections as well. While just 2.3 percent of Mainers live in Washington County, the county has seen 7.8 percent of the state’s new cases over the past week.

The county saw an outbreak at Woodland Pulp mill in Baileyville at the start of the month, with 18 people contracting the virus. Because many of those infected were out-of-state contractors, the mill outbreak didn’t immediately fuel a large increase in Washington County’s case numbers.

But in the past week, a Calais City Hall employee has tested positive for the coronavirus; at least two students at Calais Elementary School have, forcing the school into fully remote instruction until Nov. 9; and the Maine CDC on Tuesday announced a new outbreak of four cases connected to the Second Baptist Church, where the pastor said he and one of his sons tested positive. Calais Regional Hospital’s “swab-and-send” testing site has been busy, and the hospital has instituted new restrictions on patient visitors.

“I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, to be honest,” Calais City Manager Michael Ellis said. “We’ve received a lot of calls. People are nervous.”

Calais City Hall closed for three days last week — Wednesday through Friday — after the employee tested positive for COVID-19 while other City Hall employees were tested and the building was cleaned. All the other tests came back negative over the weekend, he said, and City Hall reopened on Monday.

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Plexiglass shields have been erected at City Hall, and staff and visitors are required to wear face masks when they enter the building, he said.

“We’ve been fortunate here” in Washington County, Ellis said. “We haven’t had many cases, but now we are starting to get some. We are all masked up and trying to stay 6 feet apart.”

Before the outbreak at the local pulp mill, Baileyville had encouraged but not required visitors to the town office to wear face masks, Town Manager Chris Loughlin said.

“Now you have to wear a face mask to get in,” Loughlin said. “A lot of people who didn’t take it seriously are starting to take it seriously.”

No new cases associated with the mill have been recorded in the past week or so, Shah said. Instead, the new cases that are turning up seem to be spreading in homes or at social gatherings, rather than at places where people work.

That complicates public health officials’ efforts to stem the virus’ spread, Shah said.

“From a disease control perspective, it’s much harder to tamp down on community transmission than it is an outbreak,” he said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....