A hospital on the summer tourism hub of Bar Harbor, Maine, says out-of-state visitors have brought the novel coronavirus to the island, and now the hospital is collaborating with state officials to expand contact tracing.
The Portland Press Herald on Monday reported that Mount Desert Island Hospital physicians estimated that at least 35 out-of-staters carrying the virus had been on the island this summer.
“That figure is a log of potential spreaders that our frontline care practitioners have compiled so far this summer,” hospital spokesperson Oka Hutchins wrote in an e-mail. “It includes family members and friends of visitors who may have been exposed prior to a member of their party receiving a positive test result. I can confirm it in that context.”
Hutchins elaborated in a follow-up message Tuesday morning.
“This came to our attention because we started receiving calls from visitors (both tourists and family members of area residents) who were tested before traveling and only received positive results after their arrival here,” Hutchins wrote. “Because they tested out of state, these visitors’ test results are not captured by current reporting requirements. The log of 35 people so far this summer is still current, however, none of these people were tested at our hospital. In addition to visitors who have reported positive results to us, this number includes their family members and close contacts who may have been exposed and could be potential spreaders.”
She said contact tracing “falls to the public health department in visitors’ home states, which can present challenges to effective tracing. MDI Hospital is providing counseling and contact tracing assistance when we receive these calls—but there is currently no mechanism to alert us when a positive result is received by a visitor in our community if they do not reach out to us. We hope to partner with the Maine CDC to address this.”
In another joint statement late Tuesday afternoon, the hospital and Maine CDC announced they were launching a collaborative pilot project to expand contact tracing to local residents who may have been exposed to COVID-19 by visitors from other states.
Under the arrangement, officials said, Maine CDC will make the Sara Alert automated contact tracing system available to hospital staff, allowing Mount Desert personnel to enter information about close contacts of nonresidents who inform the hospital they tested positive for COVID-19 based on samples taken in their home states.
The system will also allow hospital staff and, when appropriate, state epidemiologists to communicate with and monitor community members who might have been exposed to nonresidents with COVID-19, according to the joint release.
The Maine CDC, the statement said, already conducts contact tracing for all confirmed cases in Maine, including residents and out-of-staters whose results are reported to Maine CDC by other states.
“We commend [Maine Health and Human Services] Commissioner [Jeanne] Lambrew, [Maine CDC Director] Dr. [Nirav D.] Shah and the State of Maine for their continued willingness to partner with us to address our region-specific COVID-19 challenges,” said Arthur J. Blank, president and chief executive officer of Mount Desert Island Hospital, in the joint statement. “It is our hope that this pilot will not only help keep our community safe but also benefit others with similar seasonal populations and tourism-based economies.”
Blank’s words were echoed in the statement by Shah.
“This pilot project will provide Mount Desert Island’s trusted medical providers with a new tool to serve their community in a way that could serve as an example for other tourist destinations in Maine,” Shah said. “We are grateful to the Mount Desert Island Hospital team for their quick action and collaboration.”
As of Tuesday, the Maine CDC was reporting 3,975 COVID-19 cases statewide, including 3,548 confirmed cases, 427 probable cases, 123 deaths, and 3,424 recoveries.
The town of Bar Harbor, in a July 30 statement, urged people to practice safety precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
“The Town of Bar Harbor expects residents and visitors alike to abide by CDC and State recommendations for mask wearing, social distancing, quarantine, isolation, and handwashing,” the town said. “Abiding by these recommendations will help protect our island community. Maine can welcome all visitors from VT, NH, NJ, NY, CT without test or quarantine, and all others who provide a recent negative covid test or who quarantine for 14 days. The Governor’s mandate requires Maine people to wear cloth face coverings in public places where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, as recommended by the US CDC.”
Maine Governor Janet Mills, a Democrat, last week ripped state Republicans for proposing a loosening of travel restrictions amid the pandemic, calling the idea a “Donald Trump-style assault” on public health measures that have protected Mainers.
Mills’ statement came in response to a proposal from Maine Republican lawmakers to add Massachusetts and Rhode Island to the list of states exempt from a requirement that visitors to Maine quarantine for 14 days or show proof of a negative test 72 hours before coming into the state, the Press Herald reported.
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why Republicans care more about Massachusetts money than the life of a Maine person,” Mills said in a strongly worded statement posted to the official state website July 27.
“What the Republicans unveiled today is not a set of recommendations to salvage our tourism industry,” Mills said. “It is a Donald Trump-style assault on the very public health measures that have successfully protected Maine people. It amounts to a Republican invitation for a resurgence of the virus, which not only would sicken more people but would damage our economy for years to come.”
Mills said she, too, is ”deeply concerned about the economic ramifications of this pandemic and am worried about small business owners across Maine. Economists, public health experts, and many business owners have told me that the best thing we can do for our economic health is to ensure that we protect public health. My Administration will continue to strike that balance.”
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.