An indoor church wedding and reception have been linked to 147 coronavirus cases across Maine.
Three of those people have died. None of them were wedding attendees.
Contact-tracing efforts found that guests at the wedding directly or indirectly spread the virus to two nursing homes and inmates at a local jail.
The pastor who officiated the wedding said during an August 30 sermon that people should have the freedom to not wear a face mask.
At the start of August, Maine had emerged from the coronavirus pandemic relatively unscathed. The state had one of the lowest case tallies in the US — and its average number of new daily cases was declining.
That was before an indoor church wedding and reception on August 7.
As of Saturday, 147 coronavirus cases were linked to the wedding — including three deaths. One of those people, an 83-year-old woman, died August 31. Her husband, a 97-year-old World War II veteran, was hospitalized with the virus but is scheduled to be discharged soon.
None of the three people who died were wedding attendees.
The infections spread from Millinocket, a town in north-central Maine, to two nursing homes and a jail about 230 miles south. Maine's weekly average of coronavirus cases has now risen to 27 new daily cases, compared with 15 on the day of the wedding.
"One of the things we've learned over the past six months of working with outbreaks and COVID-19 is that no outbreak is an island," Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a Thursday press briefing. "What this really hammers home is that outbreaks are not isolated events. One outbreak can quickly lead to several more outbreaks, especially in a close geographic area."
Maine's contract tracers linked 72 wedding-related cases to the York County Jail, including 46 infections among inmates. One of the jail employees who tested positive was a guest at the wedding. The local sheriff, William King, said guards and inmates at the jail weren't required to wear masks before the outbreak.
Local officials also linked the wedding to an outbreak at Maplecrest Rehabilitation & Living Center in the town of Madison. One of the wedding guests had contact with a staff member at the nursing facility, who is believed to have spread the infection to eight residents and seven staffers.
Contract tracers also recorded 10 cases at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine. The pastor at that church, Todd Bell, officiated the Millinocket wedding.
At a sermon on August 30, Bell said people should have the liberty to choose whether to wear a face mask.
"I'll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do," Bell said. "They want us to shut down, go home, and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel."
The Maine wedding defied local laws
The Millinocket wedding appears to be a classic example of a superspreading event, in which one person infects a disproportionately large number of people. Researchers in Hong Kong have suggested that superspreader events involving indoor social gatherings may be responsible for the majority of coronavirus transmission.
Weddings are particularly high-risk, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because attendees often travel from outside the local area, which brings a risk of either introducing the coronavirus to local guests or spreading the virus to other parts of the state or country.
A study from Japanese scientists estimated that the chances of a person spreading the coronavirus in a closed environment was almost 19 times as high as in an open-air environment, though that research is still awaiting peer review.
Maine's current limit on indoor gatherings is 50 people. At least 65 people attended the wedding ceremony at the Tri-Town Baptist Church in Millinocket. The reception at the Big Moose Inn also exceeded the state's indoor limit.
Disobeying local ordinances for public gatherings has had detrimental consequences in other parts of the US as well.
In July, a San Francisco church attempted to hold an indoor wedding even though the city requires religious services to be held outdoors. At least 10 attendees, including the newlywed couple, later tested positive for the coronavirus.
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