Millinocket Area, Gateway to Katahdin, Becomes COVID Hot Spot

Millinocket, a crucial trail town for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, has become a COVID-19 hot spot after a wedding in a nearby town became a virus superspreader in Maine.

Millinocket is a hub for AT thru-hikers, whether they are NOBOs finishing a hike on nearby Mount Katahdin, the Northern Terminus of the AT, or SOBOs starting out for Georgia and the Southern Terminus on Springer Mountain.

On September 15, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 176 COVID cases—including seven deaths— have been linked to the wedding.

Dr. Nirav Shah, head of the Maine CDC, said that 56 of the approximately 65 wedding guests have COVID, and the rest of the cases are people who contracted the virus from a wedding guest, or from someone infected by a guest at the wedding in East Millinocket on August 7.

Additionally, the Maine CDC said it was investigating ten confirmed cases of COVID among people affiliated with  Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, 225 miles south of Millinocket, home church of the pastor who officiated at the wedding.

Until the outbreak following the wedding, Penobscot County, where Millinocket and East Millinocket are located, had been considered “green,” meaning there was a low risk of COVID and students could likely return to school in person.

That has been upended, with school openings delayed in both towns. Millinocket Regional Hospital has suspended all elective surgeries and postponed appointments that can be delayed safely. Millinocket Town Hall is closed.

Twenty-three Millinocket residents had contracted the virus as of August 23, according to the Maine CDC’s case data. East Millinocket has 19 cases, while nearby Medway has now seen 13 total cases since the start of the pandemic.

The reach of the COVID infections has been far.

Inmates and employees of York County Jail in Alfred, more than 200 miles to the south, and employees and residents of a rehabilitation center in Madison have been infected, with their cases linked to the wedding. Six patients at the nursing home have died.

The wedding ceremony took place at Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket, with a reception nearby at the Big Moose Inn, with views of Katahdin.

A state health report said staff at the inn wore masks, but most guests did not. The report also said that wedding guests were required to have their temperatures taken before entering the inn, and all of them had normal temperatures. The inn also had documentation showing that guests who came from out of state had tested negative for COVID-19.

But the state report said the 60-plus wedding guests exceeded the 50-person limit that the state allows for indoor gatherings as part of its coronavirus restrictions. Forty guests who were not part of the wedding party brought the total at the inn to between 104 and 109, the report said.

In a statement, the inn said it misunderstood the guidelines, and believed that 50 people could be in each dining room, not 50 people in the entire inn.

Tables also were not set up at least six feet apart. Two of the inn’s workers have tested positive for COVID.

Because of the report’s findings, the state suspended the inn’s license for several days.

Featured photo courtesy of Tilghman Moyer.

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