The Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention opened a COVID-19 outbreak investigation associated with Waldo County General Hospital on Monday.

As of Monday morning, the outbreak investigation involved five people, Robert Long, the spokesperson for the Maine CDC, said.

A call to a hospital spokesperson Monday was not immediately returned.

Waldo County has recently emerged as a hotspot for COVID-19 in Maine. In the last week, the county’s new case rate is nearly three times greater than what is considered to be a high transmission rate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the federal agency, high transmission is defined as total cases of 100 or more per 100,000 in the last seven days.

In Waldo County, the new case rate was 289.56 cases per 100,000 people, as of Saturday.

Long said that the county’s relatively small population — there are just under 40,000 people who live there — is important to keep in mind.  

“Perspective and context is important,” he said. “The U.S. [CDC], when it does its transmission risk rating, uses the same formula for all the counties. A smaller number of cases in Waldo County is going to lead to that high designation.”

Nevertheless, the Maine CDC has not found a single origin or link for the new COVID-19 cases, which means that it’s important for everyone to be careful, he said.

“People should be smart when they go out and about, so they make informed decisions,” Long said.

The Maine CDC is doing case investigations and contact tracing for all new cases, he said. The agency scaled back in January and February, when there were 600 or 700 new cases a day, but it is currently still able to keep up with the caseload.

As investigators work on contact tracing, they ask those who test positive for the names of people they’ve seen for more than 15 cumulative minutes in the last two weeks. They’re also asking if they have been to indoor spaces with lots of people, including church or gatherings. The high-profile “Arise USA” event that was held at the Crosby Center in downtown Belfast on Tuesday, July 27, for instance, doesn’t seem to be an outbreak source, Long said.

“With every newly confirmed case, our case investigators are asking, ‘Did you happen to be at the Crosby Center for that Arise event,’” Long said. “People are saying no.”

Among the new cases, he said, the most common thread is that the people who are getting sick are people who are telling case investigators they have not been fully vaccinated.

“We have to ask them, they have to volunteer the information, then we have to go and validate it for the immunization records,” Long said. “We have to rely on what they tell us, at least initially. Up till now, based on that information, the most common factor is people who are not fully vaccinated.”

Another trend, he said, is that more and more of the cases seen here are the delta variant, which seems to make people sick more quickly. Previously, people would develop symptoms five to seven days after being exposed to the virus. With the delta variant, that incubation period has compressed, so that people who have been exposed see symptoms within just two days.

The COVID-19 vaccines provide strong protection against the delta variant, he said.  

“Every week, the evidence grows that the vaccine is the best tool to get us out of the pandemic,” Long said. “If you haven’t gotten vaccinated, really think seriously about it.”

Although there have been so-called breakthrough cases of people who are fully vaccinated testing positive for COVID-19, they are quite rare, he said. Statewide, of the 36,785 cases since Jan. 18, the first date when people could be considered fully vaccinated, 712 positive tests were among fully vaccinated people. That’s less than 2 percent, Long said.

“A high number of people had either no symptoms at all or very minimal symptoms,” he said.

Of those breakthrough cases, 32 people have been hospitalized and 14 have died. That’s less than 6 percent of the total number of deaths that have occurred since Mainers could be fully vaccinated.

“Many of those people were receiving end-of-life care when they were vaccinated or had other significant clinical factors such as ongoing immune system suppressant treatment,” Long said.

Similarly to how Mainers are asked to slow down in the winter when driving on snow- or ice-covered roads, there are things people can do to reduce risk during the pandemic, he said.

“Right now, when we have a more virulent variant, there are simple steps you can take to reduce your risk,” Long said. “It’s wearing a mask in an indoor public setting. It’s getting vaccinated. Those are clear, reasonable steps people can take.”