BAR HARBOR — Maine and Hancock County continue to have remarkably low numbers of COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, no cases at all have been reported in Bar Harbor’s ZIP code and there were six active cases in the county, many of which are associated with outbreaks at blueberry farms.
The rate of new cases in Hancock County has slowed since the agricultural outbreaks were reported earlier this month, with one new case reported Sunday and one on Tuesday. The local “sentinel” testing program for frontline tourism workers has not revealed any cases.
Keeping up all the hard work to prevent the spread of the virus “is harder when the numbers look good and it’s sunny out,” Jean Lambrew, Maine commissioner of Health and Human Services said in a media briefing Tuesday. But she stressed the importance of remaining vigilant, especially since the positivity rates in neighboring states, and those sending the most visitors, are much higher.
Seeing the streets and shops get busier is making many local residents worry, impacting the debate on school reopening in a few weeks (see related story). Some feel it’s irresponsible for people to vacation at all during the pandemic. “We have tourists here right now,” one teacher wrote to the school system board, “who are more than willing to compromise our communities so that they can feel a modicum of largely misappropriated and self-entitled normalcy.”
Residents also remain concerned that the true number of cases in the community is invisible since nonresident cases are reported separately and cases in visitors who test out of state are not reported at all.
“That has created a lot of confusion that we’ve worked hard to help people try to understand,” Mount Desert Island Hospital President Art Blank said at a community town hall last week. The hospital receiving calls from visitors who received positive test results after their arrival here “creates a particularly challenging situation for us.”
To mitigate that challenge, the hospital worked out an agreement with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention “to make sure that the public health precautions that we have available through the CDC become available to our visitors,” Blank said. The CDC granted the hospital the public health jurisdiction to use the Sara Alert contact tracing system to track symptoms of those who have come into contact with a positive case here, even if the positive case is a visitor.
There’s no automatic or required reporting of such cases, CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah has said. While people should be encouraged to seek medical advice when they receive a positive COVID-19 test, he said if the state were to encourage visitors to report results to local hospitals, that could lead to double counting of cases.
The most important thing for those individuals, Shah said in a media briefing Tuesday, is to “make sure they abide the guidance to stay inside, to not go outside or interact with anyone until such time as they get a negative result,” Shah said.
Aside from the participants in the task force testing program and other employee testing, local access to asymptomatic COVID-19 testing is still quite limited. Visit get-tested-covid19.org for current restrictions at local testing sites.
At the hospital town hall, Dr. J. R. Krevans said “it gets to be a gray area very fast” when working out the details of what a visitor can and cannot do while in quarantine.
“If you are walking along a country road or something you can keep a 6-foot distance,” he said. “But Gorham Mountain Trail on a sunny Saturday afternoon? Good luck with that.
“The onus is on the person,” he continued. “They have to not create the circumstance where other people cannot maintain safety. It’s one thing to go to the end of your driveway. To go to downtown Bar Harbor and wait in the takeout line is not maintaining social distance.”
It’s safe to go to the doctor, said Krevans and Kate Worcester, a physician assistant who leads the hospital’s testing program and has worked with local businesses on how to keep their employees safe.
“The risk is real, but it can be reduced,” Krevans said. “This is not an occasion for either nihilism or carelessness. Protections multiply, but risks add up also. Avoid crowded situations, avoid noisy unmasked situations.
“Wear a mask, close the bars, open the schools,” he said.
The video of the town hall is available on the MDI Hospital & Health Centers YouTube channel.