Visitors at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park in late June. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Multiple out-of-state visitors have approached Bar Harbor’s Mount Desert Island Hospital for advice after learning tests they took before leaving their home states had come back positive for COVID-19, the hospital said Friday.

“We are receiving calls from visitors (both tourists and family members of area residents) who were tested before traveling and only received positive results after their arrival here, and these visitors’ test results are not captured by current reporting requirements,” the hospital said on its Facebook page. “There is currently no mechanism to alert us when a positive result is received by a visitor in our community if they do not reach out to us.”

Hospital spokesperson Oka Hutchins was unable to provide further details Friday afternoon, including how many people had approached the hospital.

The development appears to stem from long delays in processing tests in much of the country, a problem that has also affected some Mainers. As the pandemic has surged in much of the South and Southwest, national test processors have become overwhelmed, with one- and two-week delays in getting results becoming commonplace.

Public health experts said the problem illustrates the shortcomings of the country’s pandemic response. “The hospital is trying to do right by its community, but there’s only so much it can do,” said Jeremy Youde, who studies the intersection of government and public health at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “Without quicker testing, these sorts of problems are likely to become more widespread.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve got such a patchwork of testing, reporting, and contact tracing systems across the country that it’s hard to develop a better response without stronger leadership and guidance from the federal government,” Youde added.

Dr. Peter Millard, an epidemiologist and former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staffer who is now medical director at Seaport Community Health Care in Belfast, said there is no easy fix.

“That’s quite a dilemma,” Millard said. “When somebody has a positive test in, say, Georgia, there is no way that the people in Georgia would know that person went to Maine, so it’s not like they can forward it to officials here.”

“You have to depend on people’s trust in the system so that they would report themselves, which would mean isolating once you have it,” he added.

In its statement, MDI Hospital said it was trying to do just that, encouraging out-of-state visitors who learned they had tested positive in their home state to come forward. It said the hospital is providing counseling and contact tracing assistance when it received those calls, even though technically these are the responsibility of health authorities in the person’s home state. (The number for this is 207-801-5900.)

The hospital has been at the center of a community-wide effort to regularly test hundreds of front-line tourism workers like cashiers, hotel clerks and servers, as well as tourists. In the past week, they processed three positive COVID-19 tests, all from people who reside outside of Hancock County after having had no positives since May 16.

“Our community and our state have done a very good job of keeping COVID-19 precautions in place, and because of this, the incidence of COVID-19 in our community has remained low,” the hospital said in its Facebook statement. “We urge all residents and visitors to remain vigilant in their COVID-19 precautions – masking, physical distancing and handwashing continue to be the best tools we have to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

It wasn’t clear Friday whether this is happening elsewhere in the state. Spokespeople for the two largest hospital networks in the state, Maine Health and Northern Light Health, said they don’t routinely compile such information and were not aware of any specific instances, though they said it was possible they had occurred.

York Hospital, which serves tourism-intensive York County, doesn’t track it either, but the staff there is aware of the issue.

“Anecdotally, I have heard of this scenario many times,” said Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau, an infectious disease physician there. “York Hospital is not notified of out-of-state visitors with positive COVID-19 outcomes, unless they choose to volunteer that information to us.”

Robert Long, a spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and its director, Dr. Nirav Shah, said the situation underscores the need for everyone in Maine to follow social distancing, mask wearing and handwashing practices.

“Dr. Shah continues to encourage people throughout Maine – residents and visitors – to live their lives as if the virus is in every community,” Long said via email. “Other state public health departments – New York, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania most recently – have notified Maine about positive tests for people who travel here, and we urge all states to do so as required by the U.S. CDC.”

He added that the Maine CDC assists in contact tracing for any Maine resident who contracted the virus as a result of contact with a nonresident. “We would alert the public of elevated risk associated with that form of potential transmission,” he said.

The proportion of COVID-19 tests from out-of-staters that are coming back positive in Maine has increased throughout July, with nonresidents now testing positive in Maine at a rate more than four times that of residents. Though the numbers are small – about 2.8 positive tests a day – they account for over 11 percent of recent new cases in the state.


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