Originally published in Castine Patriot, January 28, 2021 and Island Ad-Vantages, January 28, 2021 and The Weekly Packet, January 28, 2021
COVID-19 spread by partying, community transmission
Five schools go remote
by Leslie Landrigan
Two parties on the weekend beginning January 15 have spread COVID-19 throughout the Blue Hill peninsula and Deer Isle. But social gatherings aren’t the only cause of virus spread in the area, as an outbreak at George Stevens Academy came from one household that hadn’t been partying, according to Head of School Tim Seeley in a phone interview.
All told, the outbreaks sent five schools to remote learning, caused more than a hundred people to quarantine and disrupted daily routines throughout the region.
Businesses, schools, daycare centers and town office services have been affected, said Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings in an email. “It is sad,” she said.
GSA, the Brooklin School, Blue Hill Consolidated School and the two Deer Isle-Stonington schools have closed in-class instruction. Basketball games and the PSATs were canceled.
Just how many people have gotten sick from the virus isn’t known, as there is no recent data available.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only shows figures for COVID-19 cases by zip code from January 17. Maine CDC is also no longer conducting contact tracing for each outbreak. Local public schools themselves have had to do it, the superintendents said.
School Union 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington said in emails to parents that the two parties over the one weekend caused “an alarming number of positive cases.”
George Stevens Academy
George Stevens Academy was the first of the schools to recognize COVID-19 among its population. On January 18, school nurse Nikki Jaffrey emailed parents that people connected with GSA had tested positive. At first, 35 students and teachers quarantined; the classrooms stayed open for those who didn’t have to isolate.
One week later, 81 students and staff were quarantined and a total of four people had tested positive, Seeley said in an email to parents. GSA went remote.
The first two cases came from the same household, and they resulted in 63 people going into 14-day quarantine until January 26.
A third positive case, which had an unclear origin, resulted in no more quarantines.
The fourth positive case caused 18 more people to go into quarantine until February 5.
Seeley emphasized that increased community transmission in the area caused the outbreak, not something unique to GSA. He also said he was unaware of any social gatherings that caused virus spread.
“We have gone remote to be cautious, to minimize the chance that someone infected in the current uptick in cases in our county unknowingly comes on campus and forces more quarantines,” Seeley said.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating the GSA outbreak, according to spokesman Robert Long.
The Blue Hill Consolidated School went to remote learning at first because COVID had increased on the peninsula, according to Mark Hurvitt, School Union 93 superintendent. “It’s out of an abundance of caution as we continue to do contact tracing in Blue Hill,” Hurvitt said in a January 25 email. The next day, he emailed parents that three people had tested positive at the school.
Hurvitt said he’d know on Friday, January 29, whether the school could go back to in-class learning. That depends on the state’s designation of Hancock County’s safety level. Since January 15, Hancock County has been green—suggesting a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread. But that could change. “You will hear from me on Friday,” Hurvitt told parents. The other SU 93 schools are still open to in-person learning, he said.
The Bay School is still teaching students in the classroom, Director Marcia Diamond said in an email. “We would only go remote if it were required,” she said.
Partying closed the Deer Isle-Stonington schools to classroom learning—“a huge disappointment,” Elkington said.
“I feel badly for the kids and families who struggle the most with having their [young] kids home,” he said.
On January 24, both Deer Isle-Stonington schools went remote because of “several possible cases of COVID-19,” according to Elkington. Those cases, he said, resulted from a gathering the previous weekend. Afterward, several families admitted to the school they had come in close contact with people who had the virus, he said.
Elkington since discovered a second party had gone on that weekend.
By January 26, however, none of the Deer Isle-Stonington students had tested positive, but some parents had, Elkington said in a phone interview. And some test results still hadn’t come back. Should those tests come back negative, students and teachers would return to the classrooms on February 1, he said. Basketball would resume, but the PSATs canceled on January 26 would not be rescheduled.
The Brooklin School
Partying also closed Brooklin classrooms, according to Elkington. Fifteen people in the school had been exposed to the virus, he said, and Brooklin went remote until February 1.
In a January 23 email to parents, Elkington said one Brooklin student tested positive and another student in another classroom was suspected of having the virus. So everyone in both classrooms as well as those who took the bus with the two students had to quarantine.
Elkington explained in a phone interview the uncertainty resulted from unreliable rapid tests. People were being retested with more reliable PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that go to the state laboratory and take longer for results, he said.
By January 26, Elkington said, “All we have in Brooklin is several parents and one student [testing positive], with several students being retested.”
Nothing, he said, suggested that the Sedgwick school population had been exposed.
At Island Fishing Gear in Stonington, a pink sign on the locked door says, “Due to another COVID outbreak, we are only doing curbside until further notice.” The Stonington Lobster Co-op canceled its annual meeting because of the virus. Down the road, Burnt Cove Market is experiencing a huge surge in requests for curbside delivery, according to Ben Pitts, chief operations officer. One employee stayed home when her day care center closed, and an employee meeting was canceled.
Pitts said the Island Employee Cooperative, which owns Burnt Cove Market, anticipates losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales if the outbreaks aren’t stopped.
“The whole community is suffering because of this,” Pitts said. “It’s going to really sting if we can’t get this under control. It’s going to hurt for a long time.”