For months, Bill Trevaskis and many other North Haven islanders felt like the novel coronavirus was only a distant threat.
That changed rapidly this month, when COVID-19 began to spread around the island. Islanders learned of the first positive case on Wednesday, Nov. 4. In less than a week, that number has ballooned to 13 confirmed and two presumptive cases — an increase of 1,400 percent.
“It seemed like it was so far away,” Trevaskis, a musician and teacher, said Tuesday. “It’s crazy how much it’s increased in the last couple of weeks. Now, my friends are texting me, ‘Oh, now I have a sore throat.’ ‘Oh, now I can’t breathe.’”
North Haven, located about 12 miles off the coast of Rockland, is one of Maine’s 14 island communities that can only be reached by boat or air.
One islander suffering from COVID-19 had to be taken off the island last weekend in a lobster boat to seek medical care on the mainland.
“Thankfully, they were treated and released,” North Haven Town Administrator Rick Lattimer said.
Residents were relieved to have gotten through the summer and half the fall with no cases, even though the warmer months were busy, with some seasonal islanders arriving early and staying later than normal. But this month has provided an unwelcome wake-up call on North Haven, just as it has for the rest of Maine, which is coping with a surge of the virus.
Last week, the North Haven Community school switched to remote learning, and residents were asked not to panic but to still take precautions including washing their hands frequently and wearing masks. By Nov. 7, with five confirmed cases, town officials asked islanders to stay home when possible, and to wear a mask if they did have to and could see other people. The library and the YMCA have both closed until further notice and the post office is closed to customers, although staff will put residents’ mail outside in a bag. Stores including the North Haven Grocery and J.O. Brown, a boatyard that sells fuel and hardware, also are doing curbside service only.
Islanders are used to relying on each other — a necessity when people are a boat or plane ride away from the mainland. They also often take many roles to keep the town running smoothly. But the nature of the disease, as well as the high number of people either sick or in quarantine, has complicated that.
For instance, Trevaskis, who is on the emergency medical services crew, said that some people in quarantine serve with him. But they’re not supposed to respond to calls right now, he said.
“We’re hoping no one gets into a car accident,” he said. “It’s a slim crew anyway. We have just the right amount of people. Now that we have people quarantining, it’s a real challenge.”
At the pandemic’s outset back in March, some community members were fearful that it would be brought to the island by an outsider, and so the selectboard voted for an unprecedented, though short-lived ban on visitors and seasonal residents.
In the end, though, that’s not how the virus arrived, Lattimer said.
An asymptomatic person with close ties to the island is believed to have brought the virus to North Haven, he said. That person came to the island after being tested twice and getting negative results both times.
Although the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is involved in ongoing investigations of the cases on the island, as of Tuesday morning, they did not meet the criteria for an outbreak, according to Robert Long, the communications director for the department. Outbreaks are defined as three or more cases that are epidemiologically linked and usually involve people who are in the same place at the same time — such as outbreaks in congregate living centers, workplaces or gatherings such as weddings or worship services, which is what Maine saw at the beginning of the pandemic.
Now, though, the state is seeing “sustained, forceful and widespread” community transmission, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine CDC. Cases in Maine are much more dispersed, with small, indoor gatherings a prime source of transmission, and people with the virus may not know how they became infected.
Long said that people everywhere in Maine should consider what steps they can take to limit potential transmission of the virus before they leave their homes, he said.
“Given that widespread community transmission has been identified throughout Maine, including in remote places like North Haven, it’s more important than ever that people wear face coverings in public, stay at least six feet apart and avoid non-essential gatherings and travel,” Long said.
That includes traditional holiday gatherings such as Thanksgiving, Lattimer said. In a letter to islanders written Tuesday, he said that with cold weather, people will be spending more time indoors, and with the holiday, people will want to get together.
But this year is different.
“Unfortunately, this is not the time to gather friends and family around you,” he wrote. “I know this is sad. We live in a tight-knit community with friends all across the globe. We look forward to visiting. But our medical and emergency services are strained. We do not need to add more people to the mix right now. So please consider postponing your gatherings until you can do so safely.”
The extent of the disease on the island and the speed with which it has spread from person to person has been frightening for many. A woman who answered the phone at J.O. Brown declined to give her name, but did talk about the sentiment around the community.
“I think everybody’s scared,” she said. “You just come to work, stay closed in and go home. And some people aren’t even going out. They’re pretty much laying low.”
Trevaskis said he thinks there is a simple explanation to the spread of the disease.
“I think we just let our guard down,” he said.
There are some hopeful signs, he said. For instance, so far, the people who have the disease seem to be doing OK, “not great, but OK.” The North Haven Medical Clinic has tested more than 100 islanders for COVID-19. All tests conducted Monday came back negative. There also hasn’t been any transmission detected at North Haven Community School, which has nearly 70 students, even though a teacher and a student tested positive.
“Full-time masks, social distancing, every student has their own space in the classroom,” he said. “It is working.”
He has noticed that mask-wearing has picked up considerably since the case numbers began to rise, and said that local businesses have really stepped up to take care of islanders. The clinic staff has done an “amazing job” getting everyone tested, and the Rockland-based Island Institute also has helped the island obtain enough tests, he said.
Trevaskis is hoping that the trend of no new cases holds.
“I think it’s a reality check for us,” Trevaskis said. “I think everyone knew that if this gets out here, we could be in bad shape. We knew that. It did happen, and we kind of are in bad shape, but at least we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so that’s good.”