KITTERY, Maine — A cluster of coronavirus cases identified at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard prompted state officials to open an outbreak investigation, as announced Thursday.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah cited 18 cases, which have been lab-confirmed, with workers coming from three different states. Of the cases, 13 live in Maine, four in New Hampshire, and one in Massachusetts, Shah said.
Shah said among the 18 at least two are not employees of the shipyard, but close household contacts of PNSY employees.
Contact tracers are looking into the shipyard workers’ links to Sanford, where state officials are already managing several active outbreak investigations. A group of seven workers who tested positive were known to caravan from Sanford to the shipyard for work, Shah said.
Reached for comment Thursday, PNSY Deputy Public Affairs Officer Gary Hildreth said the yard currently has 15 positive employee COVID-19 cases that can be attributed to the privately operated Sanford vanpool. Of the 15, eight cases are the result of close contact with members of the vanpool or those who work in the same vicinity.
“Recently, shipyard leadership learned that five of nine personnel in the vanpool demonstrated COVID-19 symptoms,” he said. “Subsequent testing confirmed that seven of the nine members, including the driver, tested positive for coronavirus. All personnel were placed in a quarantine status at their residence for 14 days.”
Hildreth noted an initial investigation revealed those in the vanpool did not wear cloth face masks while commuting to and from work.
“In accordance with CDC guidelines and to protect the shipyard workforce, leadership identified coworkers who had close contact with the vanpool riders and they were also placed in a 14-day quarantine at their residence to minimize the risk of any secondary spread within the shipyard,” Hildreth said.
Sanford is the site of several active COVID-19 outbreak investigations, including at least one linked to a wedding held Aug. 7 in the Millinocket area. That wedding had been linked to 177 cases and seven deaths statewide as of Thursday, Shah said.
The wedding has likewise been linked to an outbreak at the York County Jail in Alfred, where 48 inmates, 19 employees who work at the jail building and 19 of their family members had tested positive, as of Thursday, according to Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long. The jail has been diverting new arrestees to Cumberland County for the past two weeks.
PNSY, which has nearly 8,000 employees, has stayed operating since the start of the pandemic, after being deemed essential to national security by the Trump administration. In the spring, it worked to move a majority of workers off-base through remote and tele-work options, as well as various forms of administrative leave.
In April, a civilian employee assigned to Submarine Maintenance Engineering, Planning and Procurement Activity at PNSY died as a result of coronavirus complications. Union leaders at that time also publicized several other positive cases associated with the workforce.
The shipyard in June began its return to a full strength workforce on Seavey Island, bringing back employees in a phased approach.
Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the Navy has not been releasing virus numbers for specific bases, but rather a daily – and now weekly – total for the entire Navy including military, civilian employees, contractors and its Delayed Entry Program.
As of Sept. 9, the Navy had seen a cumulative total of 13,823 COVID-19 cases and 26 related deaths.
On Thursday, Shah said the Maine CDC is conducting more testing in partnership with the shipyard.
“Since March, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard leadership has emphasized the importance of remaining vigilant at work, at home and in the community in order to minimize the risk of spread of coronavirus,” Hildreth said. “The shipyard enacted numerous mitigating measures to protect the workforce. Such measures include providing cloth face masks, mobilization of cleaning and disinfecting crews, organizing workforce distribution across multiple shifts to maximize social distancing, and encourage remote working opportunities.”
Hildreth said PNSY leadership is “committed to ensuring the health and safety of all civilian employees, military personnel, and our community neighbors and will continue to reemphasize the importance of remaining vigilant at work, at home and in the community.”
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