Four employees at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast have tested positive for the coronavirus, making it the second Maine hospital in a week to record a COVID-19 outbreak among staff members.
The outbreak there was one of a number of new outbreaks the Maine Center for Disease Control announced Friday, as cases have continued to surge in Maine with the state continuing to set records for new daily cases. The percentage of coronavirus tests in Maine coming back positive — a key indicator of how actively the virus is spreading — has also more than tripled in the past two weeks.
News of the Belfast hospital’s outbreak comes a few weeks after Waldo County began grappling with an outbreak connected to the Brooks Pentecostal Church that’s grown to 60 cases. The pastor of that church works as a security services supervisor at the Belfast hospital.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the “key question” disease investigators are trying to answer about the hospital outbreak is whether the four new cases have any link to the pastor.
“At this time we don’t have a clear answer to that,” Shah said.
The church outbreak caused cases to spiral in Waldo County, which had seen little virus activity since a large nursing home outbreak in April. The county’s case rate has stabilized more recently, however, and state officials on Friday upgraded the county’s school safety rating to green from yellow, signaling that it’s safe for schools in the county to open in person full-time.
While the hospital contends with the outbreak, Shah said people who need health care there shouldn’t stay away because of the virus situation.
“I do not want people to fear seeking health care if they live in that area, if that’s where they go,” he said.
A Waldo County General spokesperson confirmed that four health care workers at one of the hospital’s outpatient practices had tested positive. The hospital is working with its parent organization, MaineHealth, and the Maine CDC “to ensure that we are taking all appropriate steps and are doing everything possible to minimize community impact,” the spokesperson, Jen Harris, said. The hospital remains open for all services, she said.
The Waldo County General Hospital outbreak follows an outbreak at Calais Regional Hospital announced within the past week. Six employees at the Washington County hospital had tested positive as of Wednesday. Hospital officials there said the employees had likely contracted the virus outside of work, and hadn’t spread it to patients.
The state has also started investigating outbreaks at a woodworking business in Pittsfield, an assisted living facility in Machias, and a rehabilitation center in Lewiston, Shah said Friday.
The outbreaks in Pittsfield and Machias are happening in the Maine counties — Somerset and Washington respectively — that have recorded the highest rates of new cases over the past two weeks. In Pittsfield, the state CDC is also investigating an outbreak connected to a church — one of four churches that have seen an outbreak within the past month.
In Lewiston, the Russell Park Rehabilitation and Living Center has now detected 44 cases among residents and 20 among staff members. Increased spread of the coronavirus in communities where nursing homes are located raises the risk that the virus will find its way into those facilities.
Even as the state has started investigating at least 30 new outbreaks in the past two weeks, Shah has noted that most transmission of the virus is now happening outside of known outbreaks. Much of it is happening at small gatherings as people socialize more and do more of their socializing indoors as the weather gets colder.
In October, Shah said, Maine CDC investigators identified an average of 5.8 close contacts among new diagnosed cases, up from 3.5 throughout the pandemic, showing that people are socializing more than they were earlier in the pandemic and spreading the virus more as a result.
“Because, on average, people who are diagnosed now have more close contacts, it’s just statistically likely that they will have transmitted COVID-19 to other people, and more people than they would have earlier,” he said.
BDN writer Eesha Pendharkar contributed to this report.