This August 2020 file photo shows a view of Penobscot Avenue in Millinocket. The three neighboring towns of Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway had a COVID-19 outbreak after a wedding reception took place in the area on Aug. 7. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

While an early August wedding in the Millinocket area sparked Maine’s largest outbreak of the coronavirus, that part of the state has now gone more than a month without recording any new cases.

State and local officials think the quick decisions by people in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway to close down businesses and organizations in the immediate wake of that outbreak, and to step up mask wearing, probably helped to bring it under control.

Town offices and businesses were closed after the outbreak. Local schools delayed their opening by two weeks. The Millinocket hospital postponed a number of nonessential services.

Those three towns still have recorded some of the highest infection rates in the state since the start of the pandemic: East Millinocket, which saw 20 cases among residents after the wedding, still has the state’s fourth highest per-capita case rate, for example. But the last time either of the three towns recorded a new case among a resident was late August, according to Millinocket Fire Chief Tom Malcolm, who is also the town’s health officer.

Malcolm was encouraged that the community has reached that goal even after schools and some businesses have reopened. In East Millinocket — where a number of school employees, including the superintendent, tested positive after the wedding — younger students returned to in-person instruction just this week after beginning the year fully online, and high school students will return in person on Monday.

Malcolm was also pleased that members of the community seem to be taking more seriously the advice to wear face masks and use social distancing while out in public since the Aug. 7 wedding set in motion a sprawling, statewide outbreak that has infected at least 180 people with COVID-19 and led to eight deaths.

“Overall I’ve seen more people wearing masks than before, and I think people are being more cautious,” Malcolm said.

But Malcolm said the community should remain vigilant about the risk of any new cases of the virus, and he noted that some people in the area are still being tested for it.

“I’d like to say, ‘We’re over the hump and I don’t think we’re going to have another outbreak,’” Malcolm said. “But if I say that, something could happen.”

The dropoff in COVID-19 cases around the Katahdin region stands out when you look more than 200 miles to the south.

York County, the southernmost part of Maine, is now battling a growing number of coronavirus outbreaks, including two that have been directly tied to the Aug. 7 wedding: a particularly big outbreak at the York County Jail in Alfred, where a guest of the wedding works, and another at the Sanford church of the pastor who officiated the wedding.

About 40 percent of Maine’s 488 new virus cases have been in York County over the last two weeks. (York County makes up 15 percent of Maine’s population.) There have also been five new cases in Penobscot County during that time, but not in the Katahdin region.

While both York and Penobscot counties saw spikes in new daily cases and active cases following the wedding, Penobscot County’s case numbers have since returned to levels lower than the rest of the state’s while York County’s numbers have kept rising. The rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive in Penobscot County over the past two weeks has been 0.1 percent, compared with the statewide rate of 0.5 percent. In York County, the positivity rate — a key indicator of how actively the virus is spreading in an area — has been 1.7 percent, more than three times the statewide rate.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, credited Millinocket and nearby towns with quickly shutting down businesses and organizations after the wedding outbreak was discovered, which he called “one of the biggest reasons” for the disease not continuing to be spread.

Shah also said the Millinocket area had at least two advantages that have helped it avoid a bigger hit from the outbreak: few of the wedding guests were actually from that part of the state, and it also has a much lower population density than York County.

Because York County has “naturally higher population density areas,” it also has “more opportunities for one person who may have gone back to work or home in York County to infect a wider array of people, as opposed to someone in the Millinocket region,” Shah said.

Michael Madore, a Millinocket town councilor, also thought that community members seem to be more commonly wearing face masks when they enter stores now than before the Aug. 7 wedding outbreak.

“I think we’re fortunate in that it could have been a lot worse. Things are getting better,” Madore said. He called the wedding “a wakeup call” for anyone who had become “complacent” about measures that have been shown to reduce or eliminate the spread of the virus, given that there had not been any big outbreaks in the area throughout the spring and summer.

Before the outbreak, he said, “There have been times where I was going out in public without a mask, not into stores, but out in public around people.”

But the outbreak “certainly opened my eyes and brought me back to reality. This can strike anywhere, any time, with anybody. We still need to be aware and cautious and follow the CDC guidelines.”

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