A second person linked to the COVID-19 outbreak stemming from a wedding in Millinocket has died, and the number of infections among members of a Sanford church whose pastor performed the marriage has doubled.

Cases at Calvary Baptist Church increased from five to 10 on Thursday and state officials are working with the church’s leaders to limit the spread. The outbreak at the York County Jail, which began after a staff member attended the wedding, has been revised downward to 72 confirmed cases. Even so, the outbreak has prompted broader concerns about community spread in York County.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the testing positivity rate in York County alone this week has been three times higher than the state’s rate overall.

“I am concerned that if we do not get a grip on what’s going on in York County it has the potential to spiral and start affecting adjacent parts of the state in the not-too-distant future,” he said.

Shah said his staff has sent Todd Bell, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, a letter outlining expectations and offering to help the church comply with the state’s executive orders that are designed to protect public health during a pandemic. The executive orders include limiting indoor gatherings to 50 or fewer people and requiring masks in indoor public places.

“If those requirements are not abided by, they are per se violations of the executive order,” he said. “We have a strong expectation of compliance.”

Virtual services are recommended, and in-person services must follow state rules, the letter to Bell said.

“With upcoming services this weekend at all your churches in Maine, we want to ensure that you will require your congregants to wear face coverings, asking those in attendance to maintain a 6-foot distance from each other, and that all services will adhere to the governor’s orders on the number of people who can attend gatherings,” the Maine CDC letter said. “For indoor gatherings, that is 50 individuals, and for outdoor, 100.

“Please let me know at your earliest convenience whether you will comply with these requirements. Given the outbreak at your church in Sanford, we again recommend holding only virtual worship services at that site to avoid any possibility of further COVID-19 transmission.”

Shah said it’s too early to say if the state would sanction the church, and that the goal is for compliance. Bell has not commented publicly on the outbreak or returned several messages left by reporters.

The CDC director also confirmed that the death Wednesday of a Somerset County man in his 70s was linked to the Aug. 7 wedding in Millinocket that has now been tied to more than 140 cases. An 83-year-old Millinocket woman died last month after being exposed to a wedding guest.

Signs for Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford hang on a fence along High Street in Sanford on Aug. 30. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Shah said health officials are still investigating whether the Calvary Baptist Church outbreak is tied to the wedding, which Bell officiated and which six couples from his church attended. The wedding has been linked to outbreaks at the York County Jail and at Maplecrest Rehabilitation Center, a Madison nursing home.

Bell, according to a bio on the church’s website, came to Maine in 1996 from North Carolina and has launched several churches, including the Tri-Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket, where the wedding ceremony was held, and the Calvary Baptist Church.

In 2009, he opened the Sanford Christian Academy, a private school affiliated with the church.

Todd Bell in 2017

Although Bell has not talked to the media about the outbreak at his church, he did address it during a fiery sermon on Sunday. The video was posted on YouTube but has since been taken down.

Bell also incorrectly cast doubts on masks, which public health experts agree are critical to limiting the virus’ spread, especially indoors.

“Masks are kind of like trying to keep a mosquito out of a chain-link fence,” he said.

Research shows that masks are a crucial tool to limiting the spread of COVID-19, by preventing the spread of respiratory droplets that carry the virus from infected people to others.

Bell later shared misinformation about vaccines with congregants and encouraged them not to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

Some Sanford residents have expressed unease about the outbreak at the church, including Megan Gean-Gendron, who runs York County Shelter Programs. Gean-Gendron said this week she had to prohibit church volunteers from helping out with her organization’s meals program.

“For me, you either follow the guidelines or you don’t. There’s no middle ground,” she said.

Shah said the jail and church outbreak and other cases in York County are causing high levels of concern.

“The situation in York County is driving much of what we are seeing in our numbers across the state,” he said.

In all, Maine reported 53 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the second time in a week that the state had more than 50 cases in one day. Eighteen of those cases were in York County.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has tracked 4,617 COVID-19 cases and 133 deaths.

Before Thursday’s increase in cases, the Maine CDC reported another spike, 55 new cases, on Aug. 28. In the intervening days, the state has reported case numbers that have been more typical since July, between 16-24 daily.

The outbreak at the York County Jail includes 46 inmates, 18 employees and one contracted vendor, county officials said Thursday. York County Sheriff Bill King had reported Wednesday that three additional employees tested positive. The reason for the discrepancy was not clear Thursday.

The Maine CDC said Thursday that seven household members of jail employees also have tested positive, bringing the latest case count  to 72. Ten additional household members were reported on Wednesday as part of the outbreak but have since tested negative, the CDC said.

Widespread testing has been underway for several days at the jail. Given the vulnerability of the population, there is concern the number of cases could increase. The jail has been testing every inmate upon arrival for some time, but it’s not clear how often staff members are tested. The Maine CDC has said that a staff member attended the wedding in Millinocket.

There were also two cases at the regional mail processing plant in Scarborough, according to two union presidents who represent workers there. The last time a postal worker at the facility tested positive was in March, they said.

Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 92, said he was informed of the first case last Friday. The second case was reported to union leaders on Tuesday.

Since then, postal managers have quarantined about eight people who may have had contact with the two people who tested positive, Seitz said. The two people who tested positive are not members of his union, which represents a smaller number of letter carriers who work out of the plant.

“I’m sure they’ll be more, because of the amount of people who work in there, (and) the close proximity that everyone has to each other,” Seitz said. “Not everybody wears masks.”

Scott Adams, the president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 458 representing mail clerks, confirmed the two recent positive cases, but declined to give any details.

Adams does not think the plant environment has become a vector for transmission, and believes that it’s the behavior of people outside of work, whether they attend gatherings or go to restaurants, and then bring the virus back with them.

“I would expect there to be more cases, only because of what’s going on outside of the postal service,” Adams said. “I don’t think our plant is a contributing factor. I see this as, ‘Here we go again, people have let their guard down.’ Everybody’s back out in public.”

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this story

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