BAR HARBOR — The number of cases of COVID-19 among Hancock County residents has nearly doubled in the last week, from 18 to 34, but the “sentinel” testing program for employees of Mount Desert Island tourism businesses has yet to surface a positive case.
Between March 31 and July 15, when the first 18 cases were reported for Hancock County, there was never more than one new case on any given day.
Then came news last week of outbreaks at two blueberry companies in Ellsworth: five confirmed new cases July 28 at one company and three at a different company July 29, bringing the county’s cumulative total from 18 to 26. On Saturday, seven more confirmed and one more probable case in Hancock County were added.
Those numbers, appearing as the tourism season here continues to ramp up, prompted questions from concerned residents, from a county official and from Mount Desert Island Hospital.
Early in the pandemic, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clarified that cases of the virus are reported in a person’s state of permanent residence, not in the place where they were tested. Contact tracing investigations are also the responsibility of the patient’s home state.
Since MDI is a destination for summer residents and visitors from all over the country, people here are nervous about not knowing the true number of cases among people who are or were here.
The CDC is reporting total numbers of cases among nonresidents, 159 statewide since the pandemic began as of July 23. That’s compared to 2,430 negative test results for those who claim primary residence in other states.
The nonresident cases now represent more than 11 percent of all positive tests in the state, according to the Portland Press Herald, but there is no evidence that those nonresidents have spread the disease to Mainers.
“It has come to our attention that there are unreported cases in our community,” MDI Hospital officials announced in a statement Friday, “due to the current system design for reporting.”
Under current state travel rules, visitors from most states must either quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, get a test for COVID-19 within 72 hours of leaving home to come here or get a test after arriving and quarantine while awaiting the results.
Residents of New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are exempt from this requirement; state officials say the prevalence of the disease in those states is such that visitors do not represent a significantly higher risk to a destination community than Mainers do.
“We are receiving calls from visitors (both tourists and family members of area residents) who were tested before traveling and only received positive results after their arrival here, and these visitors’ test results are not captured by current reporting requirements,” the hospital’s statement said.
“To address this, MDI Hospital’s COVID-19 team is providing counseling and contact tracing assistance when we receive these calls — but there is currently no mechanism to alert us when a positive result is received by a visitor in our community if they do not reach out to us.”
On Monday, hospital spokesperson Oka Hutchins told the Portland Press Herald that “there are 35 individuals and families or more who are potential spreaders” of the virus and are or were visiting here.
The hospital is also providing its own running tally of positive tests from samples taken there. Three new cases were reported last week, the first since May. All were out-of-state residents.
The “sentinel” employee testing program was developed by a task force including Healthy Acadia, the hospital, state representatives, The Jackson Laboratory, island towns and Chambers of Commerce. It is intended to protect the workers as well as provide early warnings of potential community transmission. Every two weeks, each of 200 public-facing workers in local tourism businesses are being tested for COVID-19 at Mount Desert Island Hospital.
“To date, this project has a zero positivity rate,” hospital officials wrote. “Any positive results from this project will be included in the case counts on our website.”
All of the new Hancock County cases reported July 28-29 are associated with blueberry companies Hancock Foods and Merrill Farms. At both facilities, the workers were tested by the Maine Mobile Health Program. The affected workers are now quarantined in Bangor, according to Andrew Sankey of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency.
The migrant blueberry workers were also all reported as Hancock County residents, even though some had reportedly recently arrived from Florida.
In a widely circulated email, Sankey said he has “inquired as to why, as remains the requirement for other visitors to Maine from some locations, the migrants were neither tested prior to arrival, nor the 14-day quarantine period provisioned.
“I also am seeking clarification as to why those testing positive are being listed statistically as being Hancock County residents, in contrast with past practice in all other cases, to-date,” he continued.
On Monday, CDC spokesperson Robert Long said “some of” the eight new Hancock County cases reported Saturday are connected with these outbreaks. No new outbreak investigations have been opened in Hancock County since the two announced last week, he said.
No new positive cases, resident or nonresident, have been reported by MDI Hospital since July 29.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the Hancock County case count, which as of Aug. 3 was 34.