Maine’s record-setting surge in coronavirus cases over the past two weeks has happened even though the state set up an intricate patchwork of rules during the spring and summer to stem the spread of COVID-19 in restaurants, barber shops and gyms, and at large gatherings such as concerts and plays.
That’s because the state’s COVID-19 rules target public places, while the virus has been spreading most actively in recent weeks in the privacy of people’s own homes and beyond the reach of regulations — when friends and family come together for dinner, board games, birthday parties or drinks. It’s a trend that could continue as freezing weather forces Mainers indoors and they consider seeing their loved ones over the holidays.
The state has few levers it can pull to stop the new transmission of the virus other than to double down on the public messages it has broadcast for months exhorting people to wear masks, stay physically distanced and avoid getting together with people from outside their households — particularly in indoor spaces with poor ventilation. So stopping the virus’ accelerating spread — and the hospitalizations and deaths that can result from it — falls squarely in the realm of people’s own behavior rather than government regulation.
The change in Maine’s virus trajectory has been anything but gradual, especially following a summer during which the state mostly held the virus in check and an early fall when new daily case numbers inched up gradually.
Maine began seeing triple-digit increases in new daily cases about two weeks ago, and the trend hasn’t let up since. As of Thursday, the state had seen an average of 174.1 new cases each day for the past week, up from 66 two weeks before.
November isn’t even half over, but Maine has already recorded more than a fifth of its cases since the start of the pandemic in this month alone. No other full month has accounted for nearly that share of Maine’s total cases. And no county has been spared new cases recently, unlike at other times during the pandemic.
Rural Somerset and Washington counties have led the state over the past two weeks in new cases for every 10,000 residents, showing how Maine counties that saw relatively little virus transmission early in the pandemic are now deeply affected by the contagion.
The Somerset County town of Madison shows how the nature of the virus’ spread has changed as the pandemic has progressed.
In August, Madison became an epicenter for the virus’ spread as Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center became the site of a virus outbreak connected to an Aug. 7 wedding in the Katahdin region, as a certified nursing assistant became sick from a child who attended the wedding, then put in an overnight shift despite experiencing a sore throat, cough, chills and muscle aches. Ultimately, 25 residents and 15 employees at the nursing home caught the virus, and seven residents died.
By mid-September, Madison had seen three dozen cases of the virus in town. But as the nursing home outbreak subsided, Madison went weeks without reporting a new case. Since Oct. 18, however, the 4,700-person town’s case tally has jumped from 37 to 59 as of Sunday.
With the Maplecrest outbreak closed, the virus is now spreading outside of the nursing home’s walls, and Madison ranks fifth in the state for its infection rate. Calais, in Washington County, now ranks sixth as infections have surged in that rural, coastal county.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suggested that the early association of COVID-19 with large groups or gatherings may have caused some Mainers to downplay the risk of the disease in their own social lives.
Maine’s disease detectives used to be able to link at least half of the new cases each day to known outbreaks in nursing homes, homeless shelters, factories and other institutions. But now that the virus is silently spreading in homes across many of the state’s less populous areas, they’re able to directly connect far fewer cases to outbreaks — roughly a fifth of them on any given day, according to Shah.
At the same time, Shah said, infected Mainers are increasingly reporting that they attended gatherings with friends and family in the week before they tested positive. That’s reflected in the average number of people whom Mainers reported having close contact with before testing positive: just 3.5 for the length of the pandemic, but up to 5.8 in October alone.
“Folks are saying, ‘Well look, I’m not going to any concerts. I’m not going to any sporting events. I’m not going to any large gatherings, I should be fine,’ but now, of course, we’re seeing that that’s not the case,” he said.
The growing number of deaths in Maine from COVID-19 are tied to the number of cases, which are in turn going up as a result of small family gatherings, according to Shah.
State officials are eyeing how their counterparts around the county have attempted to control the growth of the virus through indoor gatherings. States such as New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Ohio and Colorado have limited private household gatherings to around 10 people, according to the Washington Post.
But for now, Maine is sticking with the calls for individuals to adopt proven measures that can stop the virus from spreading, such as mask-wearing and avoiding indoor gatherings where droplets of the virus can easily circulate, according to Shah.
“That’s what I really want folks to appreciate,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake right now, and it comes down to the choices that each and every one of us make.”