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Health Team

Maine wedding outbreak offers a cautionary Covid-19 tale for the holidays

Posted November 12, 2020 5:14 p.m. EST

— Americans weary of coronavirus lockdowns may be yearning for holiday get-togethers, but disease detectives say a summer wedding in Maine serves as a grim example of the far-reaching consequences of gatherings in the Covid-19 era.

The wedding reception at a small town led to three separate Covid-19 outbreaks that infected 178 people, putting three into the hospital and killing seven more, health investigators reported Thursday.

None of those who got seriously ill or died even went to the wedding, and many lived 100 miles away. It is a case study of how failure to follow social distancing and masking guidelines can have far-reaching consequences, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its weekly report.

The CDC report did not mention where the wedding was, but the reception has gained national notoriety as the toll has grown from an August 7 reception in Millinocket. Thursday's report adds more details about what epidemiologists know about the spread of virus from the reception at the Big Moose Inn.

The wedding reception included at least 55 people, more than the 50 people currently allowed at indoor gatherings in Maine. Guests were seated close together, were not made to wear masks, and did not socially distance. Thirty people who attended the event later tested positive for Covid-19.

The effects of the reception did not end with attendees, however. In a town that had previously had zero cases of Covid-19, 27 people later tested positive, after having contact with reception attendees. One resident died.

Even further from the event, a long-term care facility experienced an outbreak that infected 36 and killed six after a wedding guest's parent went to work at the facility. Later, a corrections facility 200 miles away from the wedding reception had a Covid-19 outbreak that infected 82 staff members and residents after a wedding guest went to work at the facility while symptomatic.

So far, this one wedding reception has been linked to at least 178 Covid-19 infections, seven hospitalizations, and seven deaths, Maine CDC officials said. None of those who got seriously ill or died even went to the wedding, and many lived far away from the event, in situations where it was difficult or impossible to prevent spread.

"This report provides a cautionary tale for people as they consider how to celebrate the winter holidays. The gatherings at the center of this outbreak occurred in a rural area that had seen almost no evidence of Covid-19," said Robert Long, communications director for Maine's Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"That changed quickly and tragically. The message for people considering holiday gatherings is that it is better to say 'I am glad I was ready' than 'I wish I had been ready,'' said Long. If communities wait to start preventing Covid-19 until it arrives, "it is probably too late."

Planning for healthy holidays

The decisions people make around the holidays this year will be about more than just celebrating, and prevention measures will be crucial in the coming weeks to prevent the extension of the country's current surge.

Halloween celebrations have already been connected with at least five outbreaks in New Jersey, and the travel that typically comes with winter holidays adds another dimension to Covid-19 risk.

On Tuesday, the CDC updated its guidelines for the holiday season. The CDC advises that get-togethers should be kept small and distant, in well-ventilated or outdoor areas, and with regular masking and hand sanitizing. The CDC also recommends that people reconsider holding gatherings in areas with high infection rates, and that people exposed to Covid-19 or who are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 refrain from getting together in person.

This is all to say that the holiday season will likely look different for many, but that difference may be crucial to stopping the spread.

In fact, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN's Chris Cuomo last month that Americans may need to "hold off" on Thanksgiving celebrations this year. Fauci has said previously that his Thanksgiving will look different this year, while his children stay in their own households to limit exposure and possible spread.

In a blog post, National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins recommended that those thinking of getting together for the holiday season consider sending gifts, connecting remotely, and spending time outdoors in order to spend quality time with loved ones while still staying safe.

Collins also offered a reminder that changes and sacrifices made now may end up making the coming weeks and months easier.

"While this holiday season is likely to be memorable in ways that we never could have imagined, I'm confident that, thanks to the rapid advances being made by medical research, we ultimately will get the Covid-19 pandemic under control so we can once again give everyone we love a big hug in person," he wrote.

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