BAR HARBOR — The bad news is the reported COVID-19 case count in Hancock County rose this week to 15 confirmed or probable cases.
The good news is that 30,000 high-quality face masks ordered by Mount Desert Island Hospital have arrived and are being distributed to town offices and businesses, along with help from hospital educators about how to best use them to limit the spread of the virus.
The number of confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 in Hancock County stood at 15 this week. Of those, 11 have recovered and one has died after being hospitalized. Four cases are listed as “probable,” which the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines as a person who has tested positive and is symptomatic, or a person who has had close contact with a confirmed case and is symptomatic.
Cases have been in the ZIP codes for Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Ellsworth, Hancock and Franklin, according to the CDC.
The state has not been updating its website with the number of nonresidents who have tested positive while in Maine. CDC spokesman Robert Long said in an email on Tuesday that since the pandemic began through June 19, the state had transferred 81 “investigations” to other states, meaning that number of cases have been detected in people who are or were in Maine but whose permanent residence is elsewhere.
“The majority are transferred within New England (23 to New Hampshire, 19 to Massachusetts),” said Long. Conversely, Maine has received 48 cases transferred from other states, mostly New Hampshire and Massachusetts, of Maine residents who tested positive while in those states.
Those transfers impact the accounting of cases, State Rep. Brian Hubbell told the Islander, “but also the responsibility for contact tracing then falls on (the person’s home) state. We think that’s unsatisfactory.”
A plan developed by the Downeast COVID-19 Task Force, which includes legislators and hospital, town, Jackson Laboratory and Chamber of Commerce leaders, calls for contact tracing for nonresidents to happen here.
“Probably the most challenging piece of this work is that contact tracing is still evolving,” hospital CEO Art Blank said. “There are all kinds of privacy issues involved that need to be properly addressed.”
An initial supply of medical-grade ASTM-1 masks that are suitable for front-facing employees has arrived. The hospital, in partnership with the task force, is making the masks available to area employers.
“While cloth face coverings primarily protect others from the wearer, medical-grade masks offer a higher level of two-way protection for both the wearer and those they interact with,” materials from the hospital explain. “This two-way protection is particularly important for front-facing employees whose sustained interaction with the public puts them at higher risk, especially if customers and visitors are not wearing a mask.”
An initial supply of the masks was distributed to MDI town offices and chambers of commerce on June 12, hospital representative Oka Hutchins said.
“Along with the MDI town offices and chambers of commerce, MDI Hospital Health Educators Mary Parham and Laura Driscoll are helping to distribute the medical-grade masks to area businesses and offering masking education and support,” Hutchins said.
Visit mdihospital.org/maskmdi for printable versions of the safety guide being distributed with the masks, printable signs and more.
The task force plan also calls for “surveillance” or “sentinel” testing of local frontline employees that is intended to protect them as well as provide early warnings of potential community transmission.
Blank said the hospital hopes that testing program will start “very soon.” The hospital is “in the final stages of negotiations on several fronts” to secure approval and funding for the program, he said.
Funding will likely be a combination of state support from the Department of Health and Human Services and private sources. Some of the tests may be sent to the state lab in Augusta, in addition to some being processed at a Jackson Laboratory facility in Connecticut.
Blank said he also attended a bidder’s conference for the state’s new “Swab and Send” testing program, but the hospital has concerns about the program as described in the current version of the Request For Applicants.
Employee testing is also underway at Bar Harbor’s two biggest employers, The Jackson Laboratory and MDI Hospital.
The laboratory was “one of the first U.S.-based large-scale organizations to conduct universal COVID-19 testing for its employees in Maine, Connecticut and California,” representatives said in a statement. “The laboratory’s approach provides important actionable information to keep the workplace as safe as possible during the pandemic.”
Testing began at the Connecticut campus in May, and at the California and Maine campuses in June.
For Maine employees, the lab is partnering with regional hospitals to collect samples for testing, including MDI Hospital and Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital. The samples are processed at the lab’s Connecticut facility, which, until recently, was focused on analysis of tumors in cancer patients, and is licensed and accredited to do the work.
Positive results for laboratory employees would appear in the state totals, Blank said, but not in the Mount Desert Island Hospital case count.
“In terms of our employee testing, we have focused in the area where our most vulnerable population is, and that’s at Birch Bay Retirement Village,” Blank said. “We just completed our second round of testing and will continue to do that on an ongoing basis.”
A staff member at the facility tested positive in May, but subsequently retested as negative, although they remained in isolation, Blank said. That’s why, about a week after reporting the single case, the facility reported no cases. “One thing about that situation is it reinforced for us that the masking protocols that we had at the community did adequately protect folks from transmission,” he said.
Kate Cough contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of employee testing at the various Jackson Laboratory campuses.