Main Street in downtown Calais. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

On Thursday afternoon, Calais Elementary School Principal Sue Carter did something unusual: she collected more than 90 COVID-19 tests from students and others who may have been exposed to the virus and then personally drove three hours to Augusta to hand-deliver the tests to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s not the normal work of a school principal, but it was the necessary work.

Carter had arranged to test 60 students and others involved in the final week of a summer day camp program run by the city’s recreation department after two of the students fell ill and tested positive. With no place in Washington County where that many people could get tested for free on short notice, Carter created her own clinic to fill the need.

“I am not a medical professional,” said Carter, a social worker by training who has been principal at the school, which educates children from pre-K through 6th grade, for the past 8 years. “None of this should be my responsibility.”

Carter said she called officials at Maine CDC on Tuesday, after the two positive tests for COVID-19 came back. The first day of classes at the school was scheduled for the next day, Sept. 1, and she did not want to have a bunch of students who might have COVID but didn’t know it in class without testing them first.

After consulting with Calais schools Superintendent Ronald Jenkins, the decision was made to delay the start of classes at the school, which has roughly 270 students, until Tuesday, Sept. 7. The harder part, she said, was figuring out how to get the 60 kids who participated in the city’s summer day camp program, and others connected to it, tested before then.

Local testing wasn’t immediately available.

The state sponsors a “Swab & Send” program that offers testing for free, but the only testing site in Washington County that participates in the state program is the Walgreens pharmacy in Calais. But, according to Carter, the pharmacy does not provide walk-in testing, requiring instead that people make appointments ahead of time and, because it is backlogged, currently can only perform 20 tests per day.

One option was to send people to be tested at Calais Community Hospital which, like Walgreens, requires advance appointments, but no longer participates in the state’s free Swab & Send program. That would come at a cost. Tests through the hospital, she said, could cost as much as $200, and she did not want students and their families to face that kind of expense. Plus, walk-in testing at the hospital’s emergency room is meant to be for people who are sick, not asymptomatic, she said.

Aside from that, the only other alternative was to have students and their families drive more than 3 hours round trip to Swab & Send sites in Bangor or Lincoln.

That’s when Carter decided to hold a one-day testing clinic in the school cafeteria after talking to officials at Maine CDC and the local hospital, and getting authorization from the state.

Maine CDC agreed to send her 300 PCR tests, which are regarded as being the most accurate, and the hospital agreed to loan her 3 staffers for a day to help organize the clinic and to handle the testing data as it was collected.

“We tested 91 people today,” Carter said late Thursday, adding that on top of testing students, the school also tested some of the students’ close family members and members of the public who attended some camp events held as the rec department’s summer program was winding down last week. “I am on my way to Augusta right now.”

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said that lab staff will be working on Saturday and are expected to have lab results available before classes start on Tuesday, Sept. 7, despite the long Labor Day holiday weekend.

City officials did not respond to a message Friday morning asking about the local COVID cases.

The Calais School Department plans to conduct pool testing at all its schools this fall, to help stay ahead of potential outbreaks, and will require all students and staff to wear masks inside school buildings until the pool testing program begins in mid-September.

Carter said that with COVID’s delta variant still spreading in Maine, and with the number of positive cases increasing, there should be more testing resources available in Washington County. Some Swab & Send sites in the county, such as the one at the local hospital, closed down earlier this summer when demand for testing was low, but demand now is going back up.

“If something has to happen to have my kids be safe, I’m going to do it,” Carter said. “It shouldn’t be ‘the house is burning, which kid are you going to take out first.’”

The principal said that she would like the state to set up more walk-in Swab & Send sites in the Calais area, so it’s easier for people to be tested before they get sick, which would help slow the spread of the disease. Long said Maine CDC is “engaged in ongoing discussions” with healthcare providers in Washington County to increase local testing availability.

As of Wednesday, there had been more than 1,000 cases in Washington County during the pandemic, including 19 deaths and 45 hospitalizations, according to Maine CDC data.

“I would love to be part of the solution,” Carter said. “I just don’t know what that is.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....