Schools in the Androscoggin Valley have avoided COVID-related quarantines and shutdowns so far, but COVID-19 cases at the federal prison in Berlin have school leaders on alert.
Earlier this month, eight inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Berlin tested positive for COVID-19. Those cases make up the bulk of the 15 active cases currenly in Coos County, which had only a handful of cases over the summer.
Gorham superintendent David Backler says even though the prison is closed to visitors, there are still ways the virus could spread.
“That's a significant number of people who live in our community and are affiliated with the federal prison, and I think once it spreads beyond inmate population, then it's a concern for us,” he explained.
A spokesman for the prison says all the roughly 570 inmates have been tested twice, and so far there are no new coronavirus cases. The majority of the 240 prison staff have gotten tests voluntarily; two have tested positive.
That low number is good news for schools, but a small increase in active cases could tip the scales; according to local school districts’ metrics, a rate of over 50 active cases in the community per 100,000 may prompt a transition to remote learning for two weeks, even if there are no active cases associated with schools.
This threshold takes into account the state health department’s guidelines for schools, but is slightly more conservative than in other districts, says Dr. Brian Beals, a Gorham pediatrician who is serving as a medical consultant to local schools.
Beals says school leaders are being cautious because many residents in Coos County fall under the high-risk category for COVID-19.
"There is concern that if we let COVID go crazy here, we have a more at-risk population for severity," he explains.