The well-known lobster in front of Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium on Main Street in Bar Harbor, sports a mask in this June photo. Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor has been sounding the alarm about COVID-19 potentially spreading undetected on the island. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Mount Desert Island Hospital is now piloting an electronic program for tracing the contacts of people confirmed to have the coronavirus after several visitors to Bar Harbor were given tests for the infection in their home state but received positive results only after arriving in the tourist town.

The facility will soon begin using a program called Sara Alert that state health officials have already been using to keep track of Mainers who may have contracted or been exposed to the virus.

At least five out-of-state visitors have reached out to the Bar Harbor hospital over the last week-and-a-half to report that they have received test results showing they have the virus, according to Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the reports suggest that out-of-state visitors could be bringing the coronavirus to the tourist town, Shah noted that the number of reports to the Bar Harbor hospital was relatively small. He also stressed the importance of Maine’s requirement that visitors from most states quarantine for two weeks after arriving here unless they can present a negative coronavirus test.

“I think it works,” he said of Maine’s approach on Tuesday. “We’ve just got to make sure that folks follow every step of that and not just assume or presume that, ‘Hey, I got a test. I’m sure it’s going to be negative, so I’m going to go out and eat here while I’m in Maine.’ That doesn’t work. The system requires folks to be responsible and not expose others while they’re waiting for the test.”

Shah also expressed hope that the new pilot project with Mount Desert Island Hospital would help give the state a better idea who from out-of-state is infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Using Sara Alert, the hospital will be able to enroll the close contacts of those out-of-state people into a system that Maine already uses to trace contacts of its residents when they have confirmed infections, according to Shah. That will allow health officials to monitor the symptoms of those people — who would share them daily using text, email or other methods — so they can provide them with timely advice on testing and treatment as necessary.

“It is our hope that this pilot will not only help keep our community safe but also benefit others with similar seasonal populations and tourism-based economies,” Arthur Blank, MDI Hospital’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

News of the pilot project came days after the Bar Harbor hospital warned that COVID-19 could be spreading undetected on Mount Desert Island, where tourist traffic appears to have picked up in the past month.

The hospital has provided those visitors with advice, but the responsibility of contact tracing — the process of identifying a confirmed case’s close contacts so they can be told to quarantine and get tested for the virus — falls to the visitors’ home state health departments, whose ability to counsel close contacts in Maine on where they can seek treatment and testing would be limited.

MDI Hospital issued its warning last week as it said it had only recently recorded the first positive test results in months among people who were tested at the hospital.

While tourist traffic picked up in July, state numbers so far don’t show much evidence that the virus has spread from tourists to Mainers in any significant way.

Daily numbers of new cases in Maine declined during the first half of July and were generally stable through the rest of the month. The number of people hospitalized in Maine because of the virus dropped by more than half over the course of the month as it rose more than 50 percent nationally.

Hancock County, home to MDI, has also seen its case numbers remain low. Through much of July, only Piscataquis and Washington counties had lower infection rates.

As of Monday night, the county had seen 34 cases of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, though that number has risen in the past week since two blueberry growers in the county detected outbreaks as they tested newly arrived migrant workers.

While MDI Hospital’s testing is generally limited to people with symptoms of COVID-19 and a doctor’s order for a test, the hospital has tested some employees in the tourism industry who have no symptoms to gauge how widely the virus has spread in Hancock County. As of late last week, that testing had identified no positive cases.