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The more than 170 cases in Maine’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, spread out across several counties and multiple locations, have been connected by more than the virus. They’ve also been connected by avoidable failures.
The Big Moose Inn, Maplecrest nursing home and York County Jail are linked by glaring and consequential failures to follow government rules and guidance. And some of those failures, given the nature of COVID-19, seem to have led to fatal consequences.
It began with an Aug. 7 wedding reception that the state says exceeded Maine’s 50-person limit for indoor gatherings where guests failed to wear face coverings or social distance. But those failures to follow state rules at the wedding reception didn’t automatically guarantee that seven people would die, six of them from Maplecrest.
There were additional failures at the Madison nursing home that helped the virus spread among staff and residents. Based on the findings of a state inspector who visited the facility, the first Maplecrest worker who tested positive for the virus was allowed to work on Aug. 11 despite reporting several symptoms associated with COVID-19. That worker, a certified nursing assistant, recorded having a sore throat, cough and chills that caused muscle aches not related to exercise. According to Maplecrest’s own protocols, the inspector found, an employee showing at least two of those symptoms should leave work. But in this case, the employee reportedly didn’t tell supervisors, and they didn’t review the screening log where she reported her symptoms.
It’s not clear if this employee is the same employee believed to have introduced the virus to the facility after catching it from a parent, who in turn caught it from another child who attended the Millinocket wedding. But it is clear that Maplecrest should have done a better job following its own protocols and federal guidance for screening workers. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has said that those failures “contributed” to the facility’s outbreak, and has required Maplecrest to develop a corrective plan and address deficiencies by Oct. 1.
The simplest and most apparent correction to make, it would seem, is to follow their own protocols and the state and federal rules already in place. If it wasn’t already obvious before, the failures at various stages in Maine’s largest outbreak should be a stark reminder that these rules and guidelines exist for a reason.
During a regular Thursday press conference, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah also indicated that there were failures at Maplecrest involving mask wearing, and emphasized that there are lessons to be learned in difficult situations like this outbreak.
“In this situation, I think one of the clearest examples of that is… that they themselves weren’t abiding their own protocols with respect to mask wearing,” Shah said. “That’s concerning, and I think it’s a cautionary [tale] for health care facilities across the state — across the country.”
This is a lesson that should extend further than health care facilities. The York County Jail, another facility linked in Maine’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, reportedly failed to follow guidelines that prisoners and staff wear face coverings. At least 86 people connected to the jail have been infected; one of the first to test positive was a jail worker who attended the Millinocket wedding.
“The CDC guidance was clear for correctional settings … that all staff should be masked up, as should all offenders,” Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said, as reported by the BDN in September. “It’s critically important, because in a correctional setting, as in a nursing facility, it is challenging to maintain proper social distancing because of the co-location of the offenders and the staff.”
There are still certain things we don’t know for sure about Maine’s largest COVID-19 outbreak and the situations at each of the locations it has impacted. But there are some things we know about this outbreak and about the virus in general.
We know that COVID-19 presents a higher risk for older adults and those with serious underlying health conditions. We know that congregate living and long-term care settings can present particular complications and risks. We know the virus has claimed over 200,000 American lives.
We know that wearing masks, keeping our distance and practicing good hygiene techniques like frequent and thorough hand washing can all help reduce the spread of the virus. And know that when businesses, nursing homes, jails or other entities don’t follow the public health rules and recommendations, the consequences can be deadly.