- Experts say a wedding in Maine attended by 62 people that has been linked so far to at least 170 COVID-19 cases is an example of how a small gathering can become a superspreader of the illness.
- They say the size of a gathering isn’t as important as where it’s held and how people interact at the event.
- They also note that people seem to have developed a false sense security about COVID-19 spread and are not following safety precautions when going out in public.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
What happened at a small wedding in Maine might be a prime example of why you might want to avoid even small gatherings outside your bubble.
The wedding is tied to that state’s largest outbreak of COVID-19 and the number of cases involved is still rising.
The nuptials and reception took place in rural Millinocket on August 7. A state health inspector found that the 62 guests mingled, danced, and dined for hours. They had their temperatures checked, but few wore masks or practiced physical distancing.
As of September 17, health authorities had identified more than 170 cases connected to that wedding.
Eight people have now died. None of them attended the wedding. They apparently contracted the virus from someone who did.
Anatomy of the spread
Contact tracers discovered that the virus traveled hundreds of miles away to the Maplecrest Rehab and Living Center in Madison as well as the York County Jail in Alfred.
How did it spread so far, so fast?
Here’s how the contact tracers connected the dots from the wedding to the nursing home and the jail.
“A guest who attended the wedding infected their parent. The parent then had contact with another one of their children. That child works at Maplecrest and infected five people there. All of this unfolded in 2 1/2 weeks,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention at a recent briefing.
“Our disease detectives discovered that a staff member at the York County Jail had attended the event,” Shah added.
Somehow the virus also found its way to an elderly couple who had been hunkered down at their secluded Cedar Lake cabin for months.
The Boston Globe has identified them as Frank and Theresa Dentremont. At 97 and 83 years old, they were both high risk. Theresa’s health had recently deteriorated, so the couple didn’t want to take any chances.
Authorities haven’t said how the couple came into contact with a wedding guest who had the illness.
Frank is recovering, but Theresa died on August 21, two weeks after the wedding.
“This demonstrates how aggressive and how opportunistic this virus is and how quickly it can move from one community to another, even if those communities are miles apart, separated by multiple counties in between,” Shah explained.
“What we have learned about COVID-19 is that it can be the uninvited guest at every single wedding, party or event,” he said.
Does size matter?
Experts say this outbreak illustrates what scientists have learned about the spread of the coronavirus.
They say just because an event is small doesn’t mean it’s safer.
“Any small cluster can become a large cluster very quickly. All it takes is one person who is very infectious to feasibly infect many people in a short period of time,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine specialist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts.
“This can happen whether there are 10 people or 100. It really depends on how much the index case is transmitting, how many close contacts they have, over what period of time, and where,” Karan told Healthline.
“As we saw recently, the Biogen Conference in Boston led to more than 20,000 cases,” he said.
A study examined the coronavirus outbreak at that meeting in Boston in February of executives from the biotech company Biogen.
Researchers found that a mutation in the virus from people associated with the conference showed up in hundreds of cases.
That allowed scientists to estimate the number of cases that spread from the meeting around the globe. The research paper has been published online but has not undergone peer review.
“Any event where there is crowding and groups of people, it has the potential to become a superspreading event,” Karan said.
“It’s not so much the number of people as it is where and how those people are interacting,” he added. “A small, crowded indoor party is likely a more dangerous setup for viral transmission than a larger, socially distanced gathering at an outdoor park.”
“This is all against the backdrop of community transmission rates. Areas that have more COVID-19 spread will have a higher chance that someone shows up to your gathering infected than in an area where COVID-19 transmission rates are low,” said Karan.
A false sense of security
Despite all the warnings about get-togethers, some people still don’t follow the guidelines.
At the Maine wedding, the health inspector’s report said there were signs reminding guests to wear a mask. They were largely ignored. The gathering also exceeded the state’s restriction of no more than 50 people at an event.
Is it possible we’re getting too comfortable and ignoring the recommendations?
We put that question to an expert.
“We may be getting a false sense of security to the extent that nothing has happened to us personally these last 5 months,” said Elke Weber, PhD, a professor of psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“We tend to learn from personal experience far more than science or statistics,” she told Healthline. “But learning from personal experiences makes us underestimate risks until they come and get us for the first time.”
Weber says even though we hear constantly about the thousands of people who have died from the virus, it is possible to become numb to the tragedy.
“When you live in a war zone, after a while, everyday risk becomes just baseline. Our neurons are wired in such a way that we only respond to change. And any state that’s constant basically sort of gets washed out,” Weber told NPR in an interview.
“People have just gotten used to being in this new state of danger, adapting to it, and therefore have not taken enough precaution anymore,” she added.
Plenty of examples
It’s not just the Maine wedding that’s become a COVID-19 cluster.
There are multiple examples of spread from small gatherings.
Take Massachusetts, where an outbreak is being traced to a bachelorette party in Rhode Island in late July.
In Vermont, positive test results are trickling in from guests who attended a private lodge party on August 19. The state’s department of health says it has already identified community spread from the party with 14 confirmed cases and counting.
There’s also a new study about a bus ride in Wuhan, China, in January. Researchers say one person on the bus unknowingly had the virus. Within days, 24 fellow passengers had also contracted the illness. They included passengers in the last section of the bus, seven rows behind the woman who had the virus.
Back in Maine, investigators are now looking to see if a COVID-19 outbreak at a church might also be connected to the Millinocket wedding.
The wedding’s officiant is said to have come from the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, where church services were held on Sunday even after the potential outbreak was announced.
Shah has given that state’s residents this advice.
“The virus is where we are and then it comes home with us,” he said. “Now more than ever, the actions you take today can keep people safe tomorrow.”