Houlton will still provide ambulance service to neighboring towns after two crews tested positive for the coronavirus. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

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HOULTON, Maine — Emergency services will be provided in Houlton and its contract towns, even though four of the town’s six full-time paramedic and emergency medical technicians tested positive for COVID-19, the ambulance director said Monday.

Houlton Fire Chief Milton Cone — also the town’s ambulance director — said the entire ambulance and fire department staff has been tested because the two departments share common areas inside the public safety building.

He confirmed one full-time firefighter also has tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and is isolating at home. No other cases have been identified in his staff as of Monday morning, he said.

Shawn Anderson, CEO of Houlton Regional Hospital, said Monday afternoon that two additional positive tests connected with the original incident have been reported, bringing the total to nine cases. One of the two new cases is a staff member at HRH.

Staff members of Houlton Regional Hospital scramble to administer testing kits for COVID-19 as part of the hospital’s drive-thru testing. [Alexander MacDougall | Houlton Pioneer Times]

On June 13, a Houlton Ambulance Service crew transported a patient to Houlton Regional Hospital for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On June 14, the patient was taken from the hospital by a different Houlton ambulance team to Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center for surgery.

The patient, who did not display any symptoms, tested positive for COVID-19 once at the Bangor hospital. The two ambulance teams — which totaled four workers — that transported the patient also tested positive. At least two other individuals with close contact to the teams or the patient have tested positive, the report said.

Cone said the patient came from a private home and was not a nursing home resident.

While the regular EMS crew is isolating, the town will use part-time EMTS as needed. Cone also has a basic EMT license, he said.

Tammy Hatch of Houlton Regional Hospital hands a testing kit over to a resident as part of the hospital’s drive-thru testing on June 22. [Alexander MacDougall | Houlton Pioneer Times]

Houlton provides contract services to Amity, Cary, Dyer Brook, Hammond, Hodgdon, Linneus, Littleton, Ludlown, Merrill, Monticello, New Limerick, Oakfield and Smyrna.

Houlton Town Manager Marian Anderson said Monday that the personnel who tested positive were “doing well” and are self-isolating in their homes.

The town has just two full-time and one part-time paramedic who are working 24-hour shifts, with 24 hours off. While those paramedics are off, the town is using per diem EMTs to cover shifts.

Anderson said that Presque Isle, Caribou and Bridgewater ambulance services have each offered emergency coverage. Houlton Ambulance Service is not doing any patient transfers from the Houlton hospital to other medical facilities, she said.

“We are following all of the CDC guidelines and our folks are well-protected, but it just shows you how quickly this [COVID-19] can spread,” Anderson said.

Jackie White, a safety officer at Houlton Regional Hospital, takes information at the hospital’s drive-thru testing site on June 22. [Alexander MacDougall | Houlton Pioneer Times]

The source of the outbreak remains under investigation. Prior to this incident, Aroostook County only had 11 total cases of COVID-19.

“I think we were all hoping this wouldn’t impact people here in Aroostook County, but realistically that just wasn’t the case. I think people were also starting to get a little too lax with wearing masks and socially distancing themselves. If everyone works together, we will get through this,” the town manager said.

Testing for individuals identified as close contacts to those infected has been arranged. Individuals who think they may have come into close contact with any member of the Houlton Ambulance Service since June 8 should call Houlton Regional Hospital at 207-532-2900 to pre-register for drive-through testing.

Individuals who go to the hospital for drive-through testing are asked to wear face coverings.

“We wish to alert the general public that now is the time for extreme vigilance,” hospital CEO Shawn Anderson said on the hospital’s Facebook page. “Masking is essential — don’t take it for granted. Handwashing and gelling is critical and social distancing remains very important. Please, this is the time, more than any other, to take these precautions. This is not a time for panic, but it is time for extreme vigilance.”

In Fort Fairfield, located about 50 miles northeast of Houlton, the police chief said Sunday that five members of the town’s fire department and one police officer may have been exposed to the virus.

The hospital was expected to test 100 people on Monday, according to the CDC. Testing will continue Tuesday and Wednesday.

In Fort Fairfield, located about 50 miles northeast of Houlton, the police chief said Sunday that five members of the town’s fire department and one police officer may have been exposed to the virus during a training session Saturday. 

Public Safety Director Shawn Newell said Monday that one of the people participating in the training received a call during the session that the person had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

Newell said Monday the exposed officer also made contact with another officer during shift change. Though both officers were socially distanced and wearing masks, the second officer has been tested and is quarantining. 

The EMT course was in a large training room with six students and one instructor spread apart to ensure social distancing. Though Newell said none of the individuals were in close contact, the tests and quarantining are being done anyway. 

After the initial test results are received, all of the exposed individuals will be re-tested on Thursday to ensure they are free of the virus. 

With potential exposure to two officers, the Fort Fairfield Police Department was left with only Newell and one other officer. Officers from the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office will help the town with police coverage until the two potentially exposed officers return to work.

Robert Long, spokesperson for the Maine CDC, said Sunday that a direct link from Houlton to Fort Fairfield had not yet been established, and there was no outbreak confirmed there at this time. He said case investigators and contact tracers were still working to determine potential exposures.