The number of COVID-19 cases associated with an outbreak at a Waldo County church that failed to follow safety guidelines at gatherings this month grew to 57 on Friday.

In response to the rising case count, the Department of Education moved Waldo County into the “yellow” designation under its color-coded Health Advisory System for schools. In the yellow category, which indicates an increased community risk, “schools may consider additional precautions, such as limiting numbers of people in school buildings at the same time, suspending extracurricular or co-curricular activities including competitions between schools, limiting interaction through cohorting, or other measures,” according to DOE guidelines.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 43 new cases overall on Friday, but no additional deaths. It was the fifth time in eight days that daily cases have eclipsed 40, and the seven-day average of daily new cases is now 36. The figure has been rising steadily since bottoming out at 14 cases per day in mid-August.

A sign on the door of Brooks Pentecostal Church announces the cancellation of services earlier this month. On Friday, 57 cases had been linked to a COVID-19 outbreak at the church and its school. Photo by Carolyn Zachary/Village Soup

The University of New England in Biddeford is dealing with a possible outbreak as well, after three students who attended an off-campus event tested positive. The school said those students have either moved into isolation or have chosen to return home.

Through contact tracing, the school also identified several close contacts of the students who tested positive. Those contacts are being tested and already have been relocated to alternative housing. As an extra precaution, UNE has ordered the quarantine of all students of Featherman Hall, where most of the affected students live, at least until Tuesday.

“This means that Featherman residents will stay inside the building, will attend classes remotely, and will receive their meals at Featherman Hall. No visitors will be permitted to enter the building,” the school said in a news release. Testing for all residents of Featherman Hall will be conducted Friday and then again next week.

UNE spokeswoman Sarah Delage said she couldn’t release more details in order to protect students’ privacy.

“What I can tell you is that the students involved did not violate any public health measures or any of UNE’s COVID policies,” she said.

UNE previously investigated a cluster of cases connected to an off-campus party in late August where students were not wearing masks.

Since colleges resumed classes in the fall, Maine has avoided any major outbreaks, although there have been some positive cases at most schools. As of Friday, there were four cases at University of Maine-Augusta, three cases at University of Maine-Farmington and one case at the UMaine flagship campus in Orono.

As for public elementary and secondary schools, the state has tracked a total of 113 confirmed or probable cases at 66 schools. Four of those schools have had five or more cases – Community Regional Charter School in Cornville (18), Massabesic Middle School in East Waterboro (7), Coastal Ridge Elementary in York (5) and Sanford High School (5).

With Friday’s number, there have been 6,095 confirmed or probable cases, 146 people have died with COVID-19 and 5,307 individuals have recovered. The number of active cases Friday was 642, down seven from a day earlier but up from 586 one month ago and from 470 two months ago.

After subtracting previously reported cases that were listed as probable but turned out to be negative after testing, the net number of new cases in Maine was 31 Friday.

New cases were reported in seven of 16 Maine counties, led by York County with 13, Cumberland County with nine, Waldo County with five and Kennebec County with four. Single cases were reported in Androscoggin, Oxford and Washington counties.

Cases continue to rise from an outbreak associated with the Brooks Pentecostal Church. So far, 57 cases had been linked to the church and various gatherings, up from 49 on Thursday. Waldo County had the highest seven-day average of new cases per 10,000 residents of any county in Maine since the beginning of the pandemic.

Fellowship gatherings that involved Brooks Pentecostal and other churches from Oct. 2-4 ignored the Mills administration’s executive orders designed to protect public health during a pandemic, which included limiting indoor crowds to less than 50, wearing masks in indoor public places and social distancing by keeping 6 feet apart.

About 100 to 150 people attended the events in early October, including parishioners from the Quaker Hill Christian Church in Unity and the Charleston Church and Faith Bible College in Charleston.

Despite the rise in cases, hospitalizations in Maine have yet to increase accordingly. Since the pandemic began, 473 have been hospitalized at some point. As of Friday, eight individuals were hospitalized, none in critical care.

Across the country, the pandemic has been worsening. The United States reported a new single-day record of at least 81,400 new coronavirus cases Thursday, according to The Washington Post. The previous high was 75,723 on July 29.

COVID-19 hospitalizations increased in 38 states over the past week and are rising so quickly that many facilities in the West and Midwest are already overwhelmed. The number of deaths nationally has crested above 1,000 in recent days, the Post reported.

The New York Times also reported Friday that rural areas were driving the increase in new cases. Earlier spikes were concentrated in cities and suburbs.

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