The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating multiple cases of COVID-19 that appear to be connected to the construction site of a Maine Veterans’ Homes residential care facility in Augusta.

Two Maine residents associated with the job site have tested positive for the disease and are self-quarantining, an agency spokesman said. An unknown number of other workers with a connection to the site tested positive after returning to another state and are self-quarantining in that state, he said.

“Maine CDC’s investigation is focused on other individuals who might have been exposed at the site, as well as close contacts of individuals who tested positive,” spokesman Robert Long said. “The investigation involves employees of multiple contractors.”

Cianbro Corp., a prominent Northeast regional construction company headquartered in Pittsfield, is the general contractor in charge of the project. VJS Construction Services of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, is a partner on the project.

Cianbro representatives did not respond to multiple calls and emails over three days this week asking for further information about the infections and steps the company and its subcontractors took to prevent coronavirus transmission at the construction site.

Positive cases at the Augusta job site should be considered “the canary in the coal mine,” said Jason Shedlock, executive director of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 17 trade unions and 5,000 workers. “If people think this isn’t happening at other job sites across the state, they aren’t paying attention.”

“Construction may be essential, but our working men and women are not expendable, whether they are a member of a union or not,” he  added. “We must do more to ensure their safety. This includes general contractors, who have the choice to hire subcontractors who will look to Maine first when staffing up these jobs.”

Construction was one of the few industries that was not forced to shut down in March as Maine limited normal business to confront the coronavirus pandemic. Industry leaders said that while the nature of construction business makes social distancing difficult, worksites could be adapted to protect workers and limit transmission. Essential workers from out of state, including construction contractors, may still travel to Maine without the 14-day self-quarantine required for other travelers.

In a news conference Friday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said it is unclear how workers on the Augusta site contracted COVID-19. The CDC investigation is in its early stages, and it could be the case that people there caught the disease outside of work, he said. It is also not certain that out-of-state contractors were the source of the infections.

“We are not even sure it is an outbreak – we have to find the epidemiological link between all of them,” Shah said.

While preventive measures may be difficult on construction sites, Shah urged people to do as much as possible to keep themselves and others safe. People may believe that being outdoors reduces their risk of contracting COVID-19, but there have been outbreaks nationwide associated with outdoor activity, Shah said.

“To the extent that physical distancing can be practiced, that is one of the best tools we have for anyone to prevent transmission,” he said.

The $91 million, 138-bed Maine Veterans’ Homes facility under construction is expected to replace the nonprofit corporation’s existing, 150-bed nursing home on Cony Road in Augusta. The group’s roughly 225 employees in Augusta will move to the new facility upon completion, and officials anticipate adding another dozen or so jobs there when it opens in 2021.

A Maine Veterans’ Homes spokesman on Wednesday said he did not have any information about COVID-19 cases there and believed paving work at the site was ongoing. He did not respond to another inquiry about the situation Thursday.

A source with close ties to the Maine construction industry, who first told the Portland Press Herald about COVID-19 infections at the site, said workers from Optimum Building Systems, a commercial drywall company from Litchfield, New Hampshire, had tested positive for the virus.

On Wednesday, a man named Rene answered the phone when a reporter asked to speak to the company owner. Rene Theroux is the CEO of Optimum.

The man did not answer when asked directly if Optimum had worked on the Augusta project and if any of its workers had tested positive for COVID-19.

He said he was unaccustomed to speaking with reporters, then said he should talk to a lawyer and hung up.

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