MADISON – The first call to Giberson Funeral Home came Sept. 3 from Mary ‘Janey’ Hughgill’s family.
Eight days later, another call came from Helen Lynch’s family.
The two women, both residents of Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison, died nearly a week apart of COVID-19.
Hughgill, 82, and Lynch, 86, were the third and fourth to die from the Aug. 7 East Millinocket wedding, a super-spreader event that has claimed seven lives and infected nearly 180 people throughout the state.
Within three days of Hughgill’s and Lynch’s deaths, two more elderly residents of the Madison care facility died of COVID-19, bringing the death total to six in the 58-bed facility.
Thirty-nine more people – 24 residents and 15 staff – were also infected at the Madison nursing home located minutes from downtown and the heart of this central Maine town.
“We were doing pretty good in Somerset County,” said Jeffrey Sproul, Giberson’s funeral director. “But then someone from here went to that wedding, and now we’re inundated with cases.”
State officials said the virus crept into Maplecrest after an employee caught the disease from their parent, who was exposed from another child who attended the wedding.
On Thursday — a day after nursing home residents told family members the National Guard sanitized and disinfected Maplecrest — Maine DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said that after on-site visits in late August and early September, the state “found that the facility did not follow its infection control processes and procedures, and was thus not in compliance with the requirements.”
Maplecrest has also been directed, Farwell said, to develop a plan to address these deficiencies and hire an independent nurse consultant to ensure the health and safety of residents, and a temporary manager to ensure compliance with requirements.
The six deaths at the nursing home are a grim reminder, Sproul said, that COVID can sweep through a small town that previously had few cases and little concern about a deadly virus.
“Mrs. Hughgill and Mrs. Lynch were my first two confirmed COVID cases,” Sproul said. “For me, it’s a reminder that being lackadaisical about this virus could cost you your life. “
The deaths and infections rattled and riled many in this former mill town, where a significant number of residents – 42 percent – are over age 55, putting them at higher risk if they contract COVID.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, as far as anger goes, I’m a 20,” said Peggy Spencer. “I live five miles away from Madison and I’m livid.”
Spencer, like many in this rural region nestled on the shores of the Kennebec River, is angry about the Aug. 7 wedding and reception, where many guests ignored the state’s social distancing and mask mandates.
“There was zero common sense used,” said Spencer, who lives in Anson. “I’m 58 and I have heart issues. So does my husband. I get (that) this couple up north wanted to get married, but was it so important that they do it this summer? Why couldn’t they have waited? Now because of that event, 39 are infected at the nursing home and six are dead.”
The wedding at Tri County Baptist Church and reception at the Big Moose Inn, where the 65-member wedding party violated the state’s indoor gathering restrictions of 50, has been called a ‘powder keg’ by the Maine CDC director, Dr. Nirav Shah.
Before Aug. 7, Maine ranked second lowest nationally in virus infections, but since the event, clusters of coronavirus infections have spiked throughout the state and threaten to “wash away” the gains Mainers made against the pandemic, said Shah.
“Maine CDC is concerned about where we are and I’m asking everyone else to share in that concern,” Shah said Tuesday. “COVID-19, right now, is not on the other side of the fences. It is in our yards.”
Nearly 85 people, both inmates and staff, were infected at the York County Jail, where an employee spread the virus after attending the wedding. In Sanford, Todd Bell, the pastor who officiated the wedding, continues to stir controversy at his Sanford Calvary Baptist Church, where at least 10 people are infected. As the CDC investigates the link between the church and the wedding outbreak, Bell has flouted the state pandemic mandates both during his services and at his Christian Academy, where masks are optional for students. Believing his religious rights trump COVID regulations, “sin,” Bell preached in a recent sermon “is worse than the pandemic.”
Some 130 miles north of Bell’s Sanford church, the burning issue around Madison centers on the pandemic, and the potential the virus could claim more lives and force the town of 4,500 to shut down. It is a topic of concern at convenience stores, pizza places and coffee shops.
Tuesday morning, Joe Savoy joined eight buddies for coffee and conversation at the Good & Plenty Diner on Main Street in Anson.
“Joe,” explained one of his friends, “just learned his wife is positive at the nursing home.”
A soft-spoken man, Savoy nodded while sipping coffee.
“They called me yesterday and told me she was infected,” Savoy said of his wife, Gail.
A retired plumber who co-owned Savoy Brothers, Savoy continued, “I go up and see her every day. She knows she has the virus. It should have never happened. It’s terrible.”
After struggling with Alzheimer’s, Savoy and his family made the difficult choice to place Gail in Maplecrest on March 10.
“Our hearts crumbled thinking we had to make this decision, but we knew deep down it was best for her Alzheimer’s to get her the help she truly needed,” said Jessica Murray, Savoy’s granddaughter.
Now, like many families with loved ones at Maplecrest, Murray, her siblings, and father pray outside Gail Savoy’s window, asking God to help her recover from COVID.
“My grammy is very special to our entire family,” said Murray, who takes her three children to Maplecrest, where they press their hands against the window that separates their great-grandmother’s hand on the other side.
“We continue to share our prayers over the phone,” said Murray, “and through the window when we can.”
Murray said they are pleased with Maplecrest’s care and the family continues to pray for the woman who loved to bake bread and cook meals for her family, her neighbors and even the mailman.
“Our hearts are sad,” Murray said, “but we find comfort in the hard-working individuals that continue to provide the best care they can for her during this heartbreaking time.”
Like the Savoy family, Elcela Lynch’s grandmother Helen was placed in Maplecrest because of Alzheimer’s. Lynch called the nursing home to check on her grandmother Sept. 7 and 8, and was told that she had a bug. She called back a few days later and learned her grandmother had been taken to Redington-Fairview hospital in Skowhegan, where she was placed in the ICU.
On Friday, Sept. 11, Lynch learned her grandmother had died of COVID-19. Four days later, Lynch stood outside her family’s Bait, Bolts and Bullets store in Solon. Dark circles ringed her eyes.
“I haven’t slept since she died,” Lynch said, explaining it was also her 23rd birthday. “My grandmother was the one who raised me. She was really my mom.”
A strong Catholic woman, Helen Lynch often took her granddaughter to feed the birds when the family lived in Roslindale, Mass.
“We all decided to move up here five years ago for a change in lifestyle,” Lynch said.
Like many, Lynch never believed the pandemic would upend the peaceful pocket of Maine.
“It’s tragic,” said Lynch of the wedding outbreak that brought the virus to her grandmother’s nursing home. “No one thought it was going to come here.”
Eight days before COVID claimed Helen Lynch, Mary ‘Janey’ Hughgill’s family lost the woman known for her ‘adventurous side.’
Like the Lynch family, Hughgill and her husband Bob decided to move from southern New Hampshire to Starks to spend their retirement years in Maine to see if “the way that life should be” lived up to its reputation.
Hughgill, her obituary said, savored the peaceful laid-back atmosphere her small town of 635 people offered.
“She loved going snowmobiling in the winter,” Hughgill’s obituary said. “She loved her flower garden and she was an avid bird watcher. She knew every bird that flew into their yard and knew what time of the year they would start returning, and when they would fly south for the winter.”
When Hughgill’s family contacted Sproul, the funeral director, he didn’t hesitate to care for the 82-year-old woman who died of COVID.
“Some funeral directors might say they don’t want to pick up someone who died of COVID, but I couldn’t do that,” Sproul said.
Still, a diabetic with heart issues, Sproul explained he has to be ‘super duper careful’ wearing full protective gear when picking up and embalming the bodies.
“I don’t want anything to leave my prep room or pass anything on,” Sproul said.
Since COVID infected the nursing home located minutes from his funeral parlor, Sproul said he has noticed increased concern among his clients and families who attend services or wakes.
“People are very much on edge here coming to a closed facility,” said Sproul. “I suggest they wear masks and I only allow 25 people in the building at a time.”
Sproul is not the only business in town that has grown concerned.
Reny’s Department store now requires masks for every customer. Curbside delivery is offered for customers who cannot wear coverings due to medical issues.
“We’ve got to be cautious now, we can’t afford to let this spread,” store manager Dean Olmsted said. “We all were pretty encouraged by the early numbers. They were really low. But then, you know how this thing works. It really sneaks up on you.”
Inside the Maplecrest nursing home, the virus crept into Anna Littlejohn’s room. The 61-year-old woman was placed in the long-term care facility three years ago after contracting sepsis. She also is diabetic and has high blood pressure.
While at the nursing home, Littlejohn has been hospitalized due to more infections, said her daughter, Amanda Roy.
“Maplecrest always seems like they’re playing catch-up,” said Roy, who lives in Lincoln and has worked several years as a case worker for mentally and intellectually challenged adults.
Roy and her four siblings grew concerned when they learned in mid-August that someone in Maplecrest had become ill with the virus.
“We were devastated,” said Roy. “We knew it was likely to spread and worried about how it would impact our mother’s health.”
Littlejohn, like other residents, was tested for the virus. Her initial test came back negative on Aug. 21. She was tested again on Sept. 11, Roy said.
Two days later, Roy FaceTimed her mother while trying on dresses for her 2021 wedding.
“I heard my mother tell someone who came into her room, ‘I can’t talk right now, I’m watching my daughter try on wedding dresses,’ ” Roy said.
Roy’s younger sister called Maplecrest and learned her mother had tested positive for COVID.
“One of the happiest days of my wedding planning,” Roy said, “turned out to be a nightmare.”
Upset, Roy called Maplecrest and talked to an administrator. She asked what the facility’s protocol was for caring for her mother. She also asked about Maplecrest’s policies for keeping COVID negative patients safe from the virus.
“I asked, ‘Are you having staff intermingle between the COVID positive patients and the COVID negative patients? And she said yes.
“I was astounded,” Roy added. “How does that make sense for infection control? It’s going to sneak in even with PPE.”
In his Tuesday briefing, Shah said Maplecrest was cooperating with the CDC and had instituted more precautions to keep the healthy patients safe from those who are infected.
North Country Associates, which owns a dozen long-term facilities in Maine, did not return emails or phone calls requesting information on their COVID policies and the outbreak at Maplecrest. Earlier in the pandemic, two other North Country facilities – Edgewood Rehabilitation and Living Center in Farmington and The Commons at Tall Pines in Belfast (which the company offers consulting) – suffered COVID outbreaks.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Maplecrest worker opened the door of the facility after a Maine Monitor reporter rang the bell. Wearing a face shield, she declined to talk and referred all questions to a corporate supervisor based in Lewiston.
When asked about the working conditions and the stress inside the facility, the worker nodded and said yes, agreeing the situation has been difficult. “It’s been a month now.”
As her mother continues to fight off the virus, Amanda Roy and her siblings, like many Maplecrest families, will continue to pray their loved ones recover.
Still, Roy grapples with her anger over the East Millinocket wedding that spread the virus 135 miles south to her mother’s Maplecrest bedroom.
“This couple created a nightmare for the rest of us,” Roy said. “While they were off enjoying a honeymoon, someone was getting infected and later had to attend their loved one’s funeral. Was it worth it?”
Roy, who plans to have her wedding sometime next year during the warmer months, hopes to have her event outside with a small group. But she realizes she may have to postpone her special day. She also worries about her mother’s ability to fight off the infection and its lingering effects.
“Because this couple had their big day and didn’t follow the rules,” Roy said, “my mother might not be able to attend my wedding.”