News Feature

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Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 12, 2022 and Island Ad-Vantages, May 12, 2022 and The Weekly Packet, May 12, 2022
Another COVID surge hits Hancock County
Island, Peninsula schools hard hit

by Leslie Landrigan

The highly contagious omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly throughout the peninsula and islands, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local health providers and school officials.

The latest COVID-19 outbreak is causing a return of some mask mandates, remote learning in Brooklin and restrictions on hospice volunteer visits.

“We are experiencing in Maine, on the island, in Hancock County and around the country, another surge in the virus,” said Walter Reed, assistant chief of the Memorial Ambulance Corps, during the Healthy Island Project May 10 community breakfast Zoom call.

“I am sad to see how many people have given in to COVID weariness,” Reed said. “I would certainly like to see masks reappear.”

Masks have been optional for schools and childcare providers since March 9. Since then, HIP Executive Director René Colson Hudson asked the Community School District 13 board to reinstate the mask mandate in the schools.

“There is considerable community spread of COVID,” she wrote in an April 23 email to board members. “Please keep our staff, our students and our community safe—especially our elderly and most vulnerable community members,” she wrote.

Hudson has daughters in the school, a family member with heart problems and at least one family member who died from the virus.

The board, however, kept the optional mask policy.

How bad is it?

Exact numbers of the virus spread aren’t available because of home testing, often not reported, Hudson said in her email.

However, the CDC designated Hancock County as having a high community transmission level of the virus. The CDC recommends that people in counties with high levels of the disease wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status.

The number of school students who’ve gotten the virus indicates the scope of the latest surge. School Union 76 has abandoned contact tracing because there are so many cases, according to Deer Isle-Stonington High School Principal Laura Davis in a May 9 email. The Union is giving a rapid-testing kit to every student who doesn’t decline it, Davis said.

An outbreak of COVID-19 caused the Brooklin School to close for the second week in a row in May, with 22 cases out of 60 students, according to School Union 76 Interim Superintendent Mark Hurvitt in a May 6 email.

Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School had 17 cases as of May 6, but continued in-class teaching, Hurvitt said. “We do see a downtrend in cases,” he said.

Similarly, there’s been an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the five School Union 93 schools—Blue Hill, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot and Surry—Superintendent Reg Ruhlin said in a phone interview.

“We’re going to manage it, we’re going to live with it,” Ruhlin said.

Hospitalizations

The high percentage of School Union 93 students and staff who’ve been vaccinated means cases of COVID-19 have been mild, Ruhlin said. “We’re not seeing students getting super sick,” he said.

Maine also has a high percentage of people who have been vaccinated, with about 78 percent of eligible Mainers fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Generally, people who’ve been vaccinated and contract COVID-19 don’t get a severe case, according to health officials.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are well below their record levels in the state. On May 9, 209 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, with 29 in critical care units and four on ventilators. That’s less than half the record level set on January 22, 2022, when Maine hospitals treated 429 COVID-19 patients, with 101 in critical care and 55 on ventilators.

Still, some local institutions are tightening their precautions. Bangor International Airport requires masks in the terminal, and Acadia National Park has made them mandatory inside its buildings, according to their websites. Northern Light Home Care & Hospice isn’t permitting hospice volunteers to visit, according to Lori Johnson, patient care manager for Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County, on the HIP community breakfast call.

HIP is holding a vaccination clinic on Thursday, May 26, in the Deer Isle town offices. For information, call René Colson Hudson at 367-6332 or the Deer Isle Town Office at 348-2324.