Martha’s Vineyard Hospital reported an unprecedented coronavirus case spike of 20 new positive patients this weekend, alarming public health officials as they try to stem the Island’s largest case surge since the pandemic began.

Tisbury health agent Maura Valley confirmed with the Gazette that seven of the cases are connected to employees at Cronig’s Market, which has now had ten employees test positive for the virus in total. The store remains closed Monday and will likely stay closed until at least Thursday, Ms. Valley said.

Speaking to the Gazette by phone Monday morning, Ms. Valley said that the other 13 new cases reported by the hospital over the weekend appear to be unrelated to the Cronig’s case cluster. While some of the cases are connected through family or friends, Ms. Valley said, she was not immediately aware of any further case clusters.

“There are some cases that are linked to families and social groups, but it’s not like we can say all these cases are linked,” Ms. Valley said. “I think we are seeing community spread. I think we are seeing a lot of pandemic fatigue, and people not paying attention to social distancing and mask wearing.”

Contact tracing, which is conducted by Island public health nurses Lila Fischer and Lori Perry, as well as a team of Island health officials that includes Chilmark health agent Marina Lent, remains ongoing. Contacts are considered to be individuals who have spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of a person who has been confirmed positive, meaning almost all customers at grocery stores would not come into close contact with employees, Ms. Valley said. 

The 20 new cases reported over the past two days are more than the Island has reported in any given week since the pandemic began.

Previous highs for weekly case numbers hovered around ten new cases per week between March and September, and although the Island saw minor upticks in case counts during the summer months, new patient numbers remained relatively steady.

But over the last two weeks in October and into November, the Island has experienced its first case spike, with 18 cases reported between Oct. 25 and Oct. 31, 15 new cases reported the week after, and now the 20 new cases just this weekend. A cluster of eight cases was connected to a wedding held over Columbus Day weekend.

In response to the recent case surge, Ms. Valley said that Island health agents and the hospital were planning to meet around noon on Monday to discuss mitigation plans.

“It seemed like it was a very good idea for all of us to get together and talk about what’s going on, and maybe try to get a sense of the best way to move forward,” Ms. Valley said.

In their daily online case update, the hospital reported that as of 9:00 a.m. Monday morning, 96 patients had tested positive for the virus. The page had not been updated since Thursday, Nov. 5, when the hospital reported that 71 patients had tested positive. Five of the new cases were reported in a public health update on Friday, and another six are connected to the Cronig’s cluster, Ms. Valley confirmed.

The hospital reported that there are no patients currently hospitalized with the virus.

But Ms. Valley said that both health agents and the hospital were “very concerned” about the outbreak, and planned to discuss ways to strengthen their public health messaging.

“We need to really try to figure out how to stem this, and get the word out to people to take this seriously, to social distance, to wear your masks, to not be in large gatherings,” Ms. Valley said. “We got through the summer season, and now, here we are.”

After relatively calm summers around the Cape and Islands, coronavirus case numbers spiked on Nantucket earlier this fall, with large outbreaks among the island’s landscape and trades community. Although Nantucket’s outbreak has slowed, there have still been 31 new cases reported in the past week and one patient is hospitalized with the virus.

Statewide case numbers have also spiked dramatically in recent weeks, mirroring national trends. The Department of Public health has reported approximately 2,000 new cases for the past three days, and seven-day average positive test rates have risen to 2.3 per cent. Both of those numbers mark a doubling since early October.

Ms. Valley pointed to a number of factors explaining the current rise in cases on the Island compared to the relatively low numbers reported during the height of the summer season, including renewed complaisance with regard to mask-wearing and distancing rules. Other factors, like luck, were important to take into account as well.

“It is kind of disappointing that we did manage to get through the summer season, only to have an outbreak now,” Ms. Valley said. “My hope is that we can get it under control quick."

Updated to include information about the tenth positive case reported among Cronig's Market employees.