BELFAST, Maine — Waldo County is largely rural, the kind of place where residents — even those who live in towns and its single city — often have backyards and enough room to spread out and comfortably distance.
Despite that, folks here are grappling with the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak connected to the Brooks Pentecostal Church.
On Tuesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention linked at least 42 cases to the church — four are connected to local public schools and another to Bayview Manor in Searsport, where a worker at the residential care facility tested positive.
Many Waldo County residents are alarmed by the spike in numbers. As well, some are frustrated because the church did not follow CDC guidelines, and so they feel the outbreak could have been prevented.
It’s the second outbreak in Maine connected to an evangelical congregation that refused to follow the rules.
Waldo County currently has 49 active cases of the virus, with 127 confirmed and probable cases counted since the start of the pandemic in March. Its positivity rate is now the fourth-highest in the state, behind only Cumberland, Androscoggin and York counties, which are more densely populated.
Kelley Domras of Searsport, who has two school-age daughters and older parents she worries about, said the latest outbreak is distressing. The last time the virus swept like this through Waldo County was in the spring, with an outbreak at The Commons at Tall Pines in Belfast that led to the deaths of 13 older adults at the care facility.
That outbreak was terrifying, she said.
But in a way, this one seems worse.
One of Domras’s close friends has to get tested because her husband’s coworker spent time with a family member who contracted COVID-19. In rural places like Waldo County, the web of relationships that interconnect people is often complex, far-reaching and can easily cross county lines.
Just like the virus.
“It is a close-knit community,” Domras said of Waldo County. “And where it’s closer to home now … yeah, it’s definitely scary.”
The virus has surfaced in four Waldo County schools, with one known positive case each at Captain Albert W. Stevens Elementary School and Troy A. Howard Middle School in Belfast, Ames Elementary School in Searsmont and Mount View Elementary School in Thorndike.
So far, the virus hasn’t spread at the schools, according to Nirav Shah of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but they have led to temporary school closures. And some parents who have been sending their children to school since September now are scrambling to find alternatives.
Alison Applegate of Thorndike, whose two girls have attended the Mount View school complex there two days a week under a hybrid education model since school began, said they will switch to remote learning because of the outbreak.
“We have people in our immediate family that are higher risk so we have decided to make our bubble smaller,” she said.
Applegate said the school district is “doing a great job” with remote learning, and the family had somewhat planned for the possibility of switching midcourse to an offsite academic model, if necessary.
Still, the speed of the outbreak’s spread has been disheartening.
“I think it just goes to show that when people choose not to listen to the mandates and follow the rules, this is what happens,” she said. “Waldo County sort of treated it like it can’t and won’t happen here.”
Jana McQuilkin of Belfast, who has two children at Captain Albert W. Stevens School, also finds the outbreak distressing. Students at the elementary school have done a good job wearing masks, she said. They’ve stayed apart and have otherwise followed the guidelines set by the Maine CDC. But elsewhere in the county, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“I am discouraged,” she said. “I think the school my children attend has done an amazing job keeping families informed and keeping children, teachers and staff safe but in the end the larger community has not done the same.”
Others who live in the area are frustrated with the lack of adherence to CDC guidelines that they are seeing among their neighbors, too. Some are opting not to go to local stores and restaurants. Some said they’ll postpone or reschedule procedures at Waldo County General Hospital, in part because they learned the preacher at the church in Brooks works as the security services supervisor at the hospital.
In his Tuesday briefing, Shah said that CDC officials began the work of contact tracing as soon as they learned about the connection between the church’s pastor and the hospital.
“We’re working with them to better identify who may have been exposed,” he said.
Jennifer Albee of Brooks said the outbreak has made her think twice before going into the general store in her town. She’s noticed that people wearing masks and distancing from each other are in the minority.
“It’s not surprising at all, just in terms of seeing the ways people have behaved over the last several months, not wearing masks in public and not adhering to simple guidelines,” she said of the outbreak.
Albee’s 8-year-old son, Turner, who attends the Cornerspring Montessori School in Belfast, wears a mask all day without complaint. She wishes that the grownups could do that, too.
“It just goes to show how one act, or one bad decision, or one meeting can have a ripple effect that goes through the whole region,” she said. “And that’s just not fair to our community.”