Maine health officials revealed that five deaths and 161 COVID-19 cases are now linked to an outbreak that happened last month at a local wedding.
The unsettling uptick came after the outbreak was reported in three separate towns, and an epidemiological investigation was launched at the church of the wedding’s officiating pastor.
The outbreak began on August 7 when people attended the indoor wedding and reception in the small town of Millinocket, according to Mine Center for Disease Control spokesman Robert Long.
The official ceremony took place at Tri-Town Baptist Church and around 65 people attended the reception at Big Moose Inn. The state’s limit on social gatherings is 50 people.
The venue owner has since admitted that they misunderstood local capacity rules and overbooked the event, but by then the outbreak had already begun.
Outbreaks linked to a wedding held at Big Moose Inn last month in Millinocket, Maine, have resulted in five deaths and 161 confirmed COVID-19 cases
The MCDC on Sunday reported that the number of deaths rose to five after three were initially reported by September 1.
Of those five deaths, Bangor Daily reported that four of them happened at Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in the small town of Madison.
At least 28 people at the facility – 13 residents and 15 employees – have been infected with the virus after a staff member contracted it.
The staffer had contracted it from a parent, who was infected by a child who attended the wedding.
Health officials over the weekend announced the death of two Somerset County women in their 80s due to COVID-19 complications. A Maine CDC representative declined to confirm if those women were residents of the facility.
Four of the five COVID-19 deaths linked to the August wedding happened at Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison, Maine (pictured)
Officials said Theresa Detremont (pictured) did not attend the Millinocket wedding before she was infected
One of the five victims included Theresa Dentremont, an 83-year-old woman who died at Millinocket Regional Hospital on August 21 after contracting the virus.
Detremont did not attend the wedding, but hospital staff believed she may have been infected by someone who did.
She had been self-isolating at home with her husband for much of the pandemic given they fell into the high-risk COVID-19 category.
Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center was one of two confirmed sites tied to the initial COVID-19 outbreak.
Nearly 130 miles south, the York County Jail in Alfred reported an virus outbreak in August.
At the moment, 48 inmates, 18 jail staffers and 17 household members of those staffers have been infected. No deaths have been linked to this outbreak.
Health officials said 48 inmates at York County Jail, 18 staffers and 17 household members of those staffers were infected by the outbreak (pictured)
Pictured: a map shows the locations of the outbreaks in Maine
Maine health officials confirmed that there are now 161 cases connected to the outbreak – a boost from 147 two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Pastor Todd Bell, who runs his Calvary Baptist Church 225 miles away in Sanford, has continued to hold in-person services despite the mounting outbreak.
The pastor’s staunch defiance of pandemic precautions has led some local organizations to suspend collaboration with the church’s outreach programs.
Bell addressed the controversy in his sermon on Sunday, urging congregants to ignore critics and listen to him instead.
Bell welcomed worshippers into Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford (pictured) on Sunday
Pastor Todd Bell (pictured) has continued to hold in-person services at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine, even after he officiated a wedding that was linked to cases and deaths
Last Sunday’s service was broadcast via livestream on the church’s website without video, so it was unclear how many people attended or whether they adhered to the state’s mask mandate, social distancing guidelines and 50-person limit on indoor gatherings.
In the livestream, Bell was heard inviting attendees to greet the people around them, according to the Press Herald.
During his sermon, Bell said that the church had continued to hold full-time classes through its affiliate youth academy.
He described how God sent a ‘perfect rainbow’ as a sign of support for that decision at an orientation event for the school last week.
The pastor also described how people outside the church had told him to ‘go back to North Carolina’ – where he lived prior to moving to Maine in the 90s – after he was tied to the wedding outbreak.
‘People think I’m a weirdo,’ he said. ‘They really do, and I’m glad I’m among friends here today.’
It’s believed the church stopped streaming video of services after footage from previous services on August 26 and 30 showed congregants standing close together and singing without masks – sparking criticism in the community.
Bell is seen giving a sermon during an in-person service on August 30, where worshippers ignored the state’s mask mandate and social distancing guidelines
Bell defended his insistence on holding in-person services in a radio address on Friday, revealing that he is seeking legal counsel from David Gibbs III, the founder, president and general counsel for the National Center for Life and Liberty (NCLL).
The NCLL bills itself as ‘a legal ministry that protects the rights of churches and Christian organizations nationwide’.
Bell did not specify what kind of work Gibbs would be doing for the church.
Gibbs confirmed to the Press Herald that he is working with Calvary Baptist but did not say if he was formally representing the church or what legal issues he might address.
On the NCLL website, Gibbs recommends that churches follow state and local regulations requiring that masks be worn during services.
He also notes that courts are likely to uphold governors’ orders regarding the pandemic.
Bell is seeking legal counsel from David Gibbs III (pictured) of the National Center for Life and Liberty
Churches around the country have repeatedly fought against COVID-19 restrictions – which in some cases have banned them from holding in-person services altogether – arguing that the rules violate religious liberty.
In Maine, Governor Janet Mills’ executive order limits indoor gatherings to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 people, and requires that people keep physical distance at such gatherings.
Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew warned that the state has the authority to crack down on any activities that threaten public health, including religious services.
‘We have those enforcement tools and, if needed, will use them,’ Lambrew said.
Bell addressed the outbreak linked to the Millinocket wedding he officiated during a sermon last month, telling the congregation: ‘It was a beautiful wedding.
‘Six families from our church went there. We never expected to get COVID. Nobody expected to experience the things that happened because you went to a beautiful wedding like that.’
He said he had been on the receiving end of negative social media comments for officiating the wedding before quoting a Bible verse that reads: ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.’
‘Men have reviled me,’ he said.