The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine’s hospitals spiked again Thursday, with 23 patients in one day setting another record as the ominous wave spreads deeper into the state.
Hospitals in Southern Maine are seeing the largest increase in patients, a result of the omicron variant gaining a foothold in more populous parts of the state for the first time. The highly contagious strain is expected to increase hospital admissions and eventually increase the number of patients in other parts of the state.
On Thursday, 436 people were hospitalized, a 25 percent increase from two weeks ago. Maine crossed the 300 patient threshold less than two months ago and barely surpassed 200 patients during last winter’s wave.
Despite the high total, Maine isn’t seeing a comparable increase in the number of patients requiring critical care or ventilators, a sign that the omicron variant could lead to less severe illness for some. Of those currently hospitalized, 103 are in intensive care and 53 are on a ventilator. Those totals have fallen slightly in the past two weeks.
Nevertheless, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, urged people to take the omicron spike lightly, especially because of the heavy burden on the health care system in general.
“Even if omicron were 10 percent milder than delta, but still 200 percent more infectious, the sum of that impact on our population is greater than the impact on any individual,” he said.
Major hospitals in the state’s Southern District — including Maine Medical Center in Portland, Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, Central Maine Medial Center in Lewiston and Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick — are hosting record numbers of people severely affected by COVID-19.
Maine Med, the state’s largest hospital, had a daily average of 71.6 confirmed COVID-19 patients for the week ending Thursday, the highest figure ever recorded in Maine since the start of the pandemic and an increase up 31 percent from 54.6 last week. SMHC had 25.2 per day (vs. 21.9 last week) and Midcoast 16.9 (vs. 14.3). CMMC’s figure was 36 a day for the six days ending Wednesday, up 25.9.
MAINE MED PATINT REPORT
On Thursday, Maine Med had 84 confirmed patients, the highest number ever reported by a hospital in the state and 11 more than the previous record set by Maine Med the day before.
“Things are very, very tight,” says Dr. Dora Anne Mills, Chief Health Improvement Officer at MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Med, SMHC and Midcoast. “The ray of goodness is that the ICUs in our healthcare system are stable and not increasing in proportion to the increase in regular medical-surgical hospital patients.” She said this was likely due to the most recent recordings of people infected with the omicron variant, which is more contagious but less virulent than the previous delta strain of the coronavirus.
Hospitals in other parts of the state reported heavy COVID-19 burdens, but not record-breaking levels. However, the state’s second-largest hospital, Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, reported a sharp spike, with average daily hospital admissions from 33 last week to 51.3 this week, a 55 percent jump. A smaller hospital, Inland in Waterville, reported a record load of seven inpatients per day during the week.
Shah was asked about hospital admissions on Wednesday in light of some states distinguishing between individuals hospitalized because of COVID-19 and those who test positive for the virus after being hospitalized for other reasons. Some experts say that so many people become infected with the omicron variant and do not experience serious illness that the two groups should be counted separately. Maine includes both types of patients in its hospitalization rate.
“When it comes to the hospital, and it’s a hospital that’s under stress and strain, it doesn’t really matter if the patient that comes in has COVID,” Shah said. “Because the impact on the hospital is equivalent in many ways.”
For example, patients who test positive still need to be separated from other patients and cared for by medical personnel who take extra precautions to prevent the virus from spreading.
Maine health officials also reported 1,555 new cases of COVID-19 and three additional deaths on Thursday.
SEVEN DAY AVERAGE HITS 1.037
With the new cases, the seven-day average rose to 1,037, compared to 727 cases on average two weeks ago. The number of new cases reported each day does not necessarily give the whole picture, as many of the tests are from days before and there is a significant backlog of tests to be processed. In addition, many people can test positive with home tests, and those results aren’t necessarily reported to state officials.
But there is no doubt that the transmission is more widespread than ever. Shah said Thursday that the state’s seven-day positivity rate has risen to 20.8 percent, the highest on the pandemic. That means that about one in five PCR tests performed come back positive. The state also processes more tests than at any other point, 848 for every 100,000 residents.
The CDC has said the percentage of unvaccinated patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has hovered around 70 percent for several weeks. The percentage of IC patients who are not vaccinated is even higher. The difference between fully vaccinated patients and unvaccinated patients is even greater when we consider that the number of unvaccinated people in Maine is less than half the number of fully vaccinated people.
The increased number of patients in hospitals, coupled with a large number of employees sick with COVID-19, prompted Governor Janet Mills this week to activate 169 members of the Maine National Guard to help hospitals. Details of where those members will be led and when they will be deployed have not been released, but the aim is for guards to assist in non-clinical roles that help clear beds more quickly.
Hospitals are increasingly forced to be more creative with their staff.
Northern Light Health, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, moved five of its smaller, more rural hospitals to emergency plans on Wednesday, reducing the quarantine period from 10 days to five. The move was made when Northern Light reported that more than 600 employees were sick.
In another sign that Maine is struggling to keep up with the rapid spread of omicron, the Department of Education announced Wednesday that schools will no longer be required to conduct contact tracing for positive cases, provided schools have a universal masking policy. .
Shah explained that the decision was made after many school officials announced that the contact tracing process was becoming too cumbersome and not as effective. Some schools have switched to distance learning because too many employees were sick and more are likely to follow in the coming weeks. Eight schools have active outbreaks, which is now defined as at least 15 percent of students and staff absent due to illness. Last week at this time there were none.
The number of cases has also risen across the country to the highest level of the pandemic in recent days. According to the US CDC, the seven-day average for cases is about 760,000, a staggering 170 percent increase from just two weeks ago. Hospital admissions are also at the highest level in the US: 124,163 on a seven-day average, compared with 67,883 COVID-19 patients two weeks earlier.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 158,087 confirmed or probable cases and 1,626 deaths in Maine, according to the Maine CDC. Both are among the lowest per capita of any state.
While the current rise is unprecedented, there are signs that it could be short-lived. In some major metropolitan areas that saw a surge in omicron cases before Maine, such as New York and Boston, cases are falling almost as fast as they’ve increased. This trend has also occurred in other countries.
Shah said on Wednesday that Maine is typically about a week behind greater Boston in “epidemiological time.”
Staff writer Colin Woodard contributed to this story
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