Jeff Wallace (right), director of code enforcement for the city of Bangor, speaks with Papa John's Assistant Manager Ashley Curtis about enforcing coronavirus safety guidelines on Nov. 19. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The coronavirus has been circulating more in Penobscot County than nearly every other Maine county over the last few weeks, as the state continues to set new records for daily infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

After going most of the pandemic with new and active daily infections below the statewide rates, Penobscot County saw both of those numbers top the state’s in late November. They have remained elevated as outbreaks have flared up at an assisted living facility in Bangor and at public schools in Bangor, Brewer and Newport.

The state is now considering whether to move Penobscot County’s schools from the “green” to “yellow” designation, which would mean it’s unsafe to offer all of their classes in-person.

The county has recorded 748 new cases and eight deaths since the start of November, which represent 71 percent and 57 percent of its totals for each respectively for the whole pandemic, according to state health data.

In another sign of the virus’ accelerating spread in the area, Penobscot County’s portion of test results coming back positive has been gaining on the state’s in recent weeks. The county’s rate of positive tests for the two-week period ending Dec. 3 was 3.4 percent, more than five times the 0.6 percent positivity rate for the two-week period ending Nov. 5. The state’s positivity rate grew by just three times, from 1.2 to 3.7 percent, during the same stretch.

Maine’s second largest hospital, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor — which serves people from Penobscot and surrounding counties — saw record-high numbers of admitted COVID-19 patients in late November, averaging 27 a day between Nov. 24 and 30 — almost a quarter of the daily statewide average of 118.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients at EMMC has since fallen, averaging just 19 a day during the first three days of December, but it could easily rise again as infections continue surging in the area.

Penobscot County’s coronavirus rates have remained lower than the state’s for almost the whole pandemic. The only previous exceptions were at the start of May, after 20 people became infected during an outbreak at a Bangor homeless shelter, and in mid-August, after a wedding in the Millinocket region sparked the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreak.

But the current uptick in Penobscot County differs in some key ways from those earlier ones: it’s far larger, it’s more enduring and it’s less clear what’s driving it.

Over the past week, the county’s rate of active infections hit a high of 23 per 10,000 residents, and its seven-day rolling average of new daily cases also broke a record at 2.32 per 10,000, both well above their high points from August of 3.5 and 0.4, respectively. Both figures are higher than the state’s most recent rates of active cases and new daily cases: 21.6 per 10,000 residents as of Friday and a rolling average of 1.97 new daily cases per 10,000 residents over the past week respectively.

What’s more, Penobscot County’s rate of new cases has remained higher than the statewide equivalent for more than two weeks, since around Nov. 21, which is longer than during the previous periods of elevated cases.

However, while those earlier upticks had some association with known outbreaks at the homeless shelter and wedding, the current one has no single origin, suggesting that a great portion of the transmission could be from people silently spreading the virus in the community.

The only Maine county that had a higher per-capita rate of new infections than Penobscot in the last two weeks was Androscoggin, which has two nursing homes trying to contain large outbreaks at the moment. In Penobscot County, a recent rise in cases associated with the University of Maine in Orono may have had some effect on the recent uptick, but that accounts for “significantly fewer cases” than the Androscoggin County nursing homes, according to Robert Long, a spokesperson for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As is the case throughout Maine, ongoing community transmission seems to be the major driver of increased case counts in Penobscot County,” Long said.

Three Penobscot County communities — Old Town, Brewer and Orono — saw some of the quickest growth in the state in their cumulative case rates during the last month. Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 29, Old Town went from seven total cases to 29, Brewer went from 13 to 49 and Orono went from 16 to 54, according to ZIP code data collected by the state.

Bangor’s ZIP code — which also includes Glenburn, Hermon and Veazie — went from 96 total cases to 254 during the same time.

However, by the end of the month, some of the county’s smaller communities had the highest per-capita rates of cumulative infections, with Corinth taking the lead at 12.57 cases per 1,000 residents, followed by Carmel, Corinna, Millinocket, Newport and Levant, which ranged from 7.52 to 5.68 cases per 1,000 residents.

There were several large political gatherings in Penobscot County in late October, most of them for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. A Levant orchard eventually expressed regret for hosting a visit by Trump himself on Oct. 25 that was attended by a large, mostly unmasked crowd in which many stood close together. 

Less than a week earlier, Vice President Mike Pence headlined a rally in Hermon for which Gov. Janet Mills criticized the vice president for violating Maine’s limits on the size of outdoor gatherings. A Penobscot County commissioner who volunteered at that rally later received word that he could have come into contact with someone at the event who had tested positive for the coronavirus, even though the commissioner, Andre Cushing, later tested negative.

In addition to the president and vice president, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., held a rally at the Calvary Chapel church in Orrington on Oct. 29, just four days after his father’s local appearance.

But Long said the state has not launched any investigations into COVID-19 outbreaks — defined as three or more connected cases — stemming from campaign events.

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