'The COVID virus is also attending': Expert explains how Maine wedding led to over 175 COVID-19 cases, 7 deaths

Officials in Maine revealed on Tuesday that more than 175 COVID-19 cases — seven of them fatal — have been linked to an Aug. 7 wedding in Millinocket, highlighting the danger of gathering indoors amid a deadly pandemic.

More than 65 people reportedly attended the wedding reception at the Big Moose Inn in Penobscot County. The event broke the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s limit for indoor gatherings, which had been capped at 50. Since then, outbreaks of the virus linked to the event have appeared at a local county jail — where one of the wedding guests works — as well as at a nursing home. None of the seven who died attended the ceremony.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah discussed the implications of the event. “The virus favors gatherings,” said Shah, according to WMTW Portland. “It does not distinguish between happy events, like a wedding celebration, or sad farewells, like funerals.”

Over 175 COVID-19 cases have been linked to an August wedding in Maine. Experts say it's a reminder that large indoor gatherings can be deadly. (Getty Images)
Over 175 COVID-19 cases have been linked to an August wedding in Maine. Experts say it's a reminder that large indoor gatherings can be deadly. (Getty Images)

Overall, with less than 5,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide, Maine has been largely successful in containing the virus. But with coronavirus cases continuing to increase in 11 states, experts say it’s vital to pay attention to how the gathering turned deadly. Here’s what you need to know.

The outbreak may have been triggered by a superspreader

The Maine CDC has not shared details on how many individuals may have had COVID-19 at the wedding (and did not reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment), but there is a chance that the outbreak may have been triggered by a single individual carrying the virus. If so, the person may be considered a superspreader — an individual who sheds higher levels of the virus, often infecting many more people as a result.

The CDC shared an example of a superspreading event this summer involving a choir practice in which one individual is believed to have spread the virus to 32 of the 61 people in attendance. Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says that could have happened here. “There could have been one or more people at this event who were shedding a lot of virus — even more than normal,” says Schaffner.

Close proximity indoors, for a long period of time, may also have been to blame

A superspreader may have been present at the event, but Schaffner says it may have just as easily been the nature of the event. “Even the average person is very contagious because this is a very contagious virus,” Schaffner tells Yahoo Life. “This could just be a consequence of a lot of close mingling over a prolonged period of time.”

He adds that events like a wedding, in which most of those attending are family and friends, can make an already dangerous situation even worse. “They want to catch up so they stand next to each other and talk for long periods of time,” says Schaffner. “They’re all very happy at this celebratory occasion — but good feelings notwithstanding, it still provides an avenue for the virus to spread.”

While the risk is not zero outdoors, Schaffner says indoors there is not “the benefit of dilution of the air,” allowing the virus to remain in the air. “The virus is spread most efficiently through close contact when people are within three to six feet of each other or unmasked, for longer than 15 minutes,” says Schaffner. “This virus is in the back of our throats, and so when we breathe out, microscopically, the virus is in what we exhale. If you’re close to me, you are going to inhale some of the air that I exhaled all along with the virus.” It’s for this reason that many experts have recommended classes, meetings, dining and the like, where possible, occur outdoors.

No matter where you’re located, Schaffner says if you host a gathering indoors, “the COVID virus is also attending that gathering”

One of the more surprising aspects of the Maine wedding outbreak has been that it occurred in a state with a low case count, which could have led the bride and groom to presume that it was safe. But Schaffner says the outcome proves that indoor gatherings of this size and nature aren’t insulated from the virus, even in states where community transmission is low.

“The recommendation is to avoid large group gatherings, practice social distancing and wear masks — and, if you are gathering indoors, to remain there for as brief a time as possible,” says Schaffner. “When you do the opposite of those recommendations, [host] a large gathering indoors without masks where you spend a lot of time in close face-to-face contact with people, you can be sure that today virtually anywhere you are in the United States, that the COVID virus is also attending that gathering.”

Hosting an event indoors gives COVID-19 the opportunity to spread, and it will “take advantage”

During the press conference on Tuesday, Maine CDC Director Shah used an analogy of glitter to capture how easily COVID-19 can spread. “It’s like a giant tube of glitter ... and you open up that glitter in your basement, and a few weeks later you’re in your attic and you find glitter everywhere and you have no idea how it got there,” Shah said. “The glitter here is not innocuous.”

Schaffner describes it as similarly ubiquitous. “A wedding, a funeral, a religious service, a political rally. It doesn’t matter. The virus doesn’t care. The virus has one job: to spread it from person to person to reproduce itself,” says Schaffner. “If you give it that opportunity, it will take advantage of that opportunity. And then as a consequence, some people will get sick, and there’s the risk, as in this case, that some people will die. Those are the facts.”

The Maine wedding, Schaffner emphasizes, is exactly why epidemiologists and other experts have urged people not to attend large gatherings. For those still attached to the idea of celebrating indoors, he suggests leaning in to a virtual event. “I would discourage any kind of big indoor gathering,” says Schaffner. “We have to think about how to plan weddings and funerals and other occasions in a virtual fashion so that many people can participate but they don’t attend physically.”

CORRECTION 9/17/20: An earlier version of this article stated that the ceremony took place at a Baptist church in York County. In fact, the ceremony took place in Sanford County.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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