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Millinocket On High Alert After CDC Reports 24 Cases Linked To Wedding

Maine Public file
Downtown Millinocket in 2017.

The Maine Center for Disease Control is trying to pinpoint the origins of an outbreak of COVID-19 associated with a Millinocket-area wedding.

As the agency continues its investigation into the outbreak that was first announced Monday, the sudden surge in local cases is prompting some in the Millinocket community to take precautionary measures.

The number of cases linked to the wedding reception on Aug. 7 still stands at 24, according to the Maine CDC: 18 among the individuals who attended a reception at the Big Moose Inn on Millinocket Lake and six among close contacts.

All of the confirmed cases at this point involve Maine residents, and no cases have been identified among the Inn’s staff.

But a little more than 24 hours into the investigation, there are still many unanswered questions. On Tuesday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said it’s still not clear where the outbreak originated. The reception of 65 people at the Big Moose Inn was a connecting point for wedding guests, but not the only event of the day.

“Was there a gathering that took place that morning, where a number of individuals were in even closer contact? There was the wedding itself at a church, which we’re looking into as well,” he said.

The state is also trying to determine whether safety protocols were followed, such as wearing face coverings, physical distancing and crowd limits.

“We are looking into whether or not this particular hotel was in violation of the executive order that does limit indoor gatherings to 50 people,” says Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The outbreak is creating ripple effects in Millinocket, a town of about 4,200 that, until now, had no recorded cases of COVID-19.

Millinocket Regional Hospital CEO Bob Peterson issued a letter to the community on Monday alerting them to the outbreak, which appears to extend beyond the wedding party. He says the hospital has identified a total of 28 positive cases — four more than are currently associated with the wedding. As a precaution, the hospital is postponing elective procedures and some appointments.

The Millinocket Town Office announced Tuesday that it has closed to public traffic. Town Manager John Davis says there’s a good possibility it could get worse before it gets better.

“Well we got the people, especially across the hall that work in the clerk’s office and they deal with people all day. And right now we’ve got a lot of people I think who are asymptomatic and might not even know it, so we didn’t want to take the chance of anything spreading,” he says.

Residents also appear to be taking more precautionary measures, says Matt Delaney, director of the Millinocket Memorial Library, which has indefinitely postponed its reopening scheduled for next week.

“I think locally what I’m observing is that a lot of the people that maybe weren’t operating as though it were here are now changing their behaviors. So I have observed more masks,” he says.

Delaney is also a co-founder of Mobilize Katahdin, which offers grocery delivery and other services to support the community during the pandemic. He says he hasn’t seen an increase in demand yet, but he expects that will change.

Even though he has always behaved as if COVID-19 was in his community, Delaney says the outbreak is discouraging.

“I fear how this is going to hurt the business community, I fear what this means for schools. It just sets us back. Some of us were hopeful we were moving to a place where we had better grasp and control over it, but that’s clearly not the case. This is a harsh reminder,” he says.

As Shah said in his briefing, there isn’t a pocket of Maine where COVID-19 isn’t circulating, even if it doesn’t appear in a ZIP code on the state’s case-tracking map.

Originally published at 5:33 p.m. Aug. 18, 2020.