Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah speaks during a press briefing in Augusta in this March 23, 2020, file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Recent coronavirus case trends in York County are raising alarm bells with state health officials, with the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention saying Thursday that the state could lose its grip on managing COVID-19 if those trends continue.

About half of the state’s active coronavirus outbreaks are now based in the state’s southernmost county, and York County’s rate of new cases and rate of virus tests coming back positive have been about triple the rest of the state over the past two weeks, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.

“I am concerned that if we do not get a grip on what’s going on in York County, it has the potential to spiral and start affecting adjacent parts of the state in the not too distant future,” Shah said.

Shah issued the warning as there are signs that two growing outbreaks of COVID-19 at a jail and church in York County could now be spreading the disease out into the broader community.

In the last two days, the state has identified 13 new cases of the coronavirus in York County residents who don’t have any clear connection to the existing outbreaks at the York County Jail or at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Shah said.

In addition, a number of those York County residents who have recently tested positive for the virus only reported coming down with their illness in the last few days, suggesting that they have caught it since those outbreaks started growing.

With the two outbreaks at the jail and church also continuing to swell, Shah reiterated the established guidance that Mainers should avoid large gatherings, wear face masks and use social distancing, particularly as they consider visiting family and friends over the upcoming Labor Day weekend. He also urged Mainers to trust the state health investigators who reach out to all the contacts of infected people so that they can quarantine and avoid spreading the disease further.

“What this really hammers home is that outbreaks are not isolated events,” Shah said. “One outbreak can quickly lead to several more outbreaks, especially in a close geographic area.”

The warning about York County came a day before state officials are expected to reassess whether it’s safe for schools there and in Penobscot County to open in person in light of the continuing outbreaks.

The Maine CDC has found one definite and one possible link between the two York County outbreaks and a broader outbreak connected to an Aug. 7 wedding in the Katahdin region. That wedding has now been tied to 144 cases and two deaths.

The officiant at the wedding, Todd Bell, is also the pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, where there are now 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19, up from five earlier this week. State officials have still not announced a formal link between the church outbreak and the larger wedding outbreak.

After the Sanford church continued to hold in-person services following the announcement of its outbreak last weekend, Maine CDC officials are now trying to convince its members to cooperate with the outbreak investigation and follow state health recommendations, which include holding all services virtually.

However, there is a clear link between the wedding and the York County Jail outbreak. After an employee of the jail attended the Aug. 7 wedding, that person was one of the first to test positive in the jail’s outbreak, which has now spread to at least 75 people: 46 inmates, 22 workers and seven of their family members. (The state earlier announced 10 additional cases among family members, but Shah said that those cases have turned out to be negative after testing results came back.)

Before the infection swept through the jail, its management reportedly failed to follow two important preventive measures: screening staff for symptoms when they entered the facility and requiring staff and inmates to wear face coverings. Now, the county has announced it is conducting an inquiry into what factors contributed to the outbreak and the extent to which it followed county policies.

Now, even though the jail has attempted to isolate infected inmates in one unit and inmates who may have been exposed to them in another unit, the virus may be continuing to spread within the building’s walls.

On Thursday, Shah said that the Maine CDC has identified eight new cases at the jail that may be among inmates who were not housed in areas which previously had cases or possible exposures. The agency is now trying to confirm where those inmates spent their time.