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While Maine’s two largest cities of Portland and Lewiston predictably have the most recorded cases of the coronavirus in the state, a small, close-knit northern Penobscot County town has the highest share of cases.
Medway has just 1,400 people but 12 recorded cases, meaning it has 8.23 cases for every 1,000 residents, according to zip code data released by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. That puts it above population hubs like Portland, which has 6.5 cases per 1,000 residents and a total of 456 cases.
The town doesn’t have many places where people can gather. Homes are spread out. A general store, an ice cream shop and a campground around the Penobscot River cater to visitors in the Katahdin area. Box stores in Bangor are nearly an hour south.
While the tight-knit nature of Medway and nearby towns has led to residents supporting each other during the pandemic, it also meant there was fear about how widespread the virus was before specific data was released. It also shows how a relatively small amount of cases can hammer one community.
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Jolayne DiCentes of Medway knows too well how easily the coronavirus can spread once it has insinuated into a community. She figured the virus would eventually make its way north once it was first reported in Maine. She didn’t expect it to burn through her town and life as it did.
DiCentes, 64, got sick from the virus. A man who lived just a couple of miles from her got sick and died. She ticks off connections with others who got sick or tested positive. There are friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances.
Then there was her longtime love, Tom Coon, who died of it on May 31. She doesn’t know how she and Coon got it, which one got it first or how it spread. Both she and Coon worked with the public — she at the local post office and he as a driver for a social services agency.
Before Coon got sick, DiCentes said he was handing out masks to people, telling them to be safe. She carries guilt over his death, though people have told her not to think like that.
“We both got it and I’m the one that lived and he had to die. It’s not fair,” she said. “It’s survivor’s guilt.”
Emery “Jeff” Lee, the head selectman in Medway, said the number of cases worried him in a small town, but that people have been taking precautions. Lee said townspeople have been supportive if someone is sick or fears going out, buying goods for each other and leaving them on doorsteps.
Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said Thursday that he did not have an immediate insight into why the small town had such a high share of cases. Robert Long, an agency spokesperson, said there are no confirmed outbreaks — meaning three or more cases linked outside of a household within 14 days — in the immediate area. The closest is in Bangor.
Although East Millinocket has between one and five cases and Millinocket has no reported cases, the closeness of the communities caused residents to believe there were a high number of cases, said Mike Michaud, a former congressman who sits on East Millinocket’s select board.
He said that once one person had it, everyone seemed to know about it, causing a perception of the virus to be widespread to grow.
“In small towns, rumors can start, and they’re sometimes not accurate,” Michaud said.
Michaud himself knew of two people who died from the virus, one of which was Coon, who he said worked on his political campaigns. He hoped having the information on cases would allay people’s fears while still taking safety precautions.
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Bedroom communities around Maine’s largest city also have high shares of the coronavirus: Cape Elizabeth, with a population of 9,500, has 8.1 cases per 1,000, and Falmouth has 8 cases per 1,000 residents with 12,000 residents, according to the data. Both towns have also seen outbreaks at long-term care facilities.
Shah said the data will not affect the state’s public health response to the virus, but he said releasing the information helps it to be transparent. The Maine CDC released the information after requests from media outlets including the Bangor Daily News. He has continually urged residents not to interpret a lack of recorded cases as a signal to not take safety precautions.
“The zip code data are simply just where the person’s stated residence is,” he said. “But it says nothing about the travels they may have had across the state and the individuals they may have interacted with.”
Watch: What Maine is doing to expand contact tracing