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News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, December 3, 2020 and The Weekly Packet, December 3, 2020
Three deaths, 51 with COVID-19 at Island Nursing Home

COVID-19 Local Updates Fall/Winter 2020
Click here to see the full COVID-19 Local Updates Fall/Winter 2020.

by Leslie Landrigan

Three residents of the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle have died after contracting COVID-19 and the number of staff and residents who’ve tested positive has risen to 51, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a news conference on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 2.

Shah said two of the deaths occurred shortly before the announcement and aren’t reflected in the CDC’s numbers that day. Robert Long, CDC spokesman, said in an email the outbreak investigation at Island Nursing Home involved 35 residents and 16 staff as of 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The outbreak was first detected seven days earlier, when six people, including staff and residents, tested positive.

“Island Nursing Home has experienced a significant outbreak, which has been exacerbated by challenges they’ve had in securing staffing,” Shah said.

Impact

News of the outbreak reverberated throughout the peninsula and island. Schools went remote, businesses closed doors to the public and state agencies sent help.

Shah said the state is helping with infection control, finding staff, and universal testing at the nursing home. The National Guard has helped to clean and disinfect the building.

Elementary and high schools closed on Monday, November 30, partly because of the INH outbreak and partly because a student at Brooksville Elementary School tested positive. The Maine Maritime Academy had already gone remote, as 23 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19. George Stevens Academy has been teaching remotely for weeks.

Town halls have either decided to close their doors to the public and offer curbside service, or to allow people to visit by appointment only. The Blue Hill, Deer Isle and Stonington libraries have gone to curbside service only. Some businesses stopped allowing public walk-ins and others, like 44 North Coffee in Deer Isle, closed for a week. Buck’s Harbor Market in Brooksville is closing until December 14. Some businesses, like The Thurston Company in Blue Hill, have shut their doors for good.

The Island Employee Cooperative is encouraging customers to use curbside delivery at V&S, Burnt Cove Market and The Galley.

Community leaders have expressed concern about the spread of rumors as well as COVID-19. “Right now we have some hysteria going on around the community,” School Union 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington said during a Zoom call on November 30.

Leaders are also bracing for another local spike in COVID-19 cases because some local households had not isolated themselves for Thanksgiving.

At Brooksville Elementary School, one student tested positive, and Maine CDC said 65 others had to be tested, according to a memo by School Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt.

“It happened because 30 people got together and didn’t do what they were supposed to,” Elkington said at the Community School District board’s December 1 meeting.

Island Nursing Home

On Wednesday, November 25, the nursing home tested all staff and residents after one resident tested positive for the virus. The resident was quarantined, but the INH decided to test facility-wide. At 4 a.m. on Thanksgiving, Executive Director Matthew Trombley learned that 21 residents and two staff tested positive for COVID-19.

That number surged to 45, including 35 residents and 10 staff, by Sunday, November 29, when Trombley spoke with four dozen state, county and local community leaders on a Zoom call. One day later, test results showed three more staff members were positive.

Trombley said the nursing home is working with various organizations to manage the outbreak, including staffing agencies, Northern Light Health Systems, CDC, the state Department of Health and Human Services, the island towns and the National Guard.

Trombley said some staff members are not coming to work because they don’t want to work around COVID-19. The nursing home is looking for any licensed nurses, CNAs and CRMAs willing to work there for the next few weeks.

The nursing home was scheduled to do another round of facility-wide testing on Wednesday, December 2.

Community spread

Local leaders are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 beyond the nursing home, especially as some students throughout the island and peninsula live in households with INH staff. State Rep. Genevieve McDonald put together a community letter (printed at left) signed by elected representatives, town officials, healthcare providers, daycare centers, local nonprofits and INH. “To be sure, this is a difficult moment, but we can and will get through it together,” the letter said. “We will continue to collaborate with each other in our response to this outbreak.”

The letter also included advice from Northern Light Health to get tested for COVID-19 five to seven days after exposure, instead of the 72 hours recommended by the state.

It expressed gratitude for the nursing home staff, administration and board, a sentiment echoed in the cut-out hearts appearing on the façades of local businesses. Someone attached a dozen heart balloons to the INH sign on Route 15 before the recent storm blew them away.

Community School District 13 board member Bill Shepard has a great-aunt in the nursing home. “They’re doing everything by the book,” he said at the December 1 school board meeting.

The schools

Three of the four schools in School Union 76—which includes Sedgwick, Brooklin, Stonington and Deer Isle—have students in households where a nursing home employee works, Elkington said. So do several of the schools in School Union 93, Hurvitt said. They include schools in Blue Hill, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot and Surry.

The student in Brooksville Elementary School has had “cross-pollination” with students in other schools, according to Hurvitt.

On December 4, the state will decide whether to designate Hancock County “yellow,” signifying a higher risk of COVID-19 spread. If it does, Hurvitt has said SU 93 will go to remote learning. However, the Deer Isle-Stonington schools will return to in-class learning on December 7, though several dozen students have opted to go to remote learning since the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.