The outbreak at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard involves 13 people from Maine, four from New Hampshire and one from Massachusetts. 2013 photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has been hit by 18 cases of COVID-19, and Maine public health officials suspect the outbreak may be connected to a commuter van that transports workers from the Sanford area in York County, the site of additional disease outbreaks.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said it is the “early, initial hypothesis” that the commuting van started the outbreak.

“One of the linkages we have identified that may have generated the outbreak is a group of individuals commuting together from Sanford to the naval shipyard,” Shah said at a Thursday afternoon news briefing. “Seven of the nine individuals who were part of that commuting van have tested positive.”

Gary Hildreth, spokesman for the shipyard, said in a statement that “those in the vanpool did not wear cloth face masks while commuting to and from work.”

The Maine CDC reported that 16 of the 18 people in the shipyard outbreak were employees, while the other two were close household contacts of employees. Of those who have fallen ill in connection with the shipyard outbreak, 13 are from Maine, four from New Hampshire and one from Massachusetts. It was not clear Thursday how many of the commuter van occupants were from Sanford, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said.

“All personnel were placed in a quarantine status at their residence for 14 days,” Hildreth said.

The shipyard issued slightly different case totals than the Maine CDC, with Hildreth saying there are 15 positive COVID-19 cases that can be attributed to a privately operated vanpool from Sanford. Of those, he said seven were in the vanpool and eight “are the result of close contact with members of the vanpool or work in the same vicinity as the positive vanpool members.”

It wasn’t clear Thursday what caused the discrepancy in the case totals.

“Since March, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has emphasized the importance of remaining vigilant at work, at home and in the community in order to minimize the risk of spread of coronavirus,” Hildreth said in the statement. The shipyard started up numerous measures that included providing cloth face masks to employees, cleaning and disinfecting upgrades, social distancing and working remotely when possible.

The Maine CDC reported a total of 25 new cases statewide, including eight in York County.

Other outbreaks reported Thursday include three cases at Baker Company in Sanford and four cases at Buffalo Wild Wings in Auburn.

No additional deaths were recorded, and among the remaining new cases, four were in Cumberland County, the state’s most populous county.

A man waits at a Metro bus stop on Congress Street in Portland on Tuesday. Four new cases of coronavirus were reported in Cumberland County on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer 

On Wednesday, the agency reported an outbreak of four cases at Elks Lodge 1470 in Sanford, where there have been outbreaks at four other social clubs.

Case totals related to those four clubs have been rising as the Maine CDC investigates, and the most recent figures show 12 cases at American Legion Post 19, eight cases at the Amvets post, 10 cases at the Lafayette Social Club and 10 cases at Sanford Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Long said investigators have learned that some of the individuals infected by the disease went to more than one of the clubs.

The American Legion outbreak was originally associated with a funeral reception.

The social clubs are part of a growing list of outbreaks in York County, including more than 70 cases at the York County Jail, 10 at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, and smaller outbreaks at the Sanford Fire Department and other locations. The jail outbreak began with a jail employee who attended a wedding and reception in the Millinocket area on Aug. 7 that has been connected to 177 cases statewide and seven deaths.

The pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, Todd Bell, officiated at the wedding, although there is not yet a firm epidemiological link between the outbreak at Calvary Baptist and the wedding.

Also on Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills announced at the news briefing that she would sign a “curtailment order” for the state budget that avoids major cuts in services by replacing $97 million in state spending with one-time federal funding from the CARES Act coronavirus relief fund. Combined with increased federal reimbursements, hiring freezes and other measures, the moves will ensure “fiscal stability,” Mills said in a news release.

Mills also pointed out that Maine is operating at 93 percent of its pre-pandemic economy, best in the nation according to an analysis by CNN and Moody’s financial services.

Mills said the state’s so-far successful efforts to minimize COVID-19 have led to an economy that’s in better shape than in most of the nation.

“We can’t have a healthy economy if we don’t have healthy people,” Mills said.

The University of New England announced additional testing measures on its Biddeford and Portland campuses Wednesday in response to the York County outbreaks.

UNE President James Herbert urged any students who may have put themselves at higher risk of contracting the virus by attending a party, religious services or other social event to go to the Student Health Center on either campus to be tested. Herbert said students would not be sanctioned for violating codes of student conduct in such situations.

Eleven UNE students previously had tested positive after an off-campus event that prompted a school investigation of student conduct.

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