Hospitalizations for COVID-19 hit a record level at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston this week as statewide inpatient numbers surged to highs not seen since mid-February.

The new surge – which comes even as a majority of adult Mainers have received at least one vaccine shot – is different in that many of the patients needing inpatient care are younger than 60 and most are from rural areas. In the past, few infected people under 60 became so sick they needed to be admitted to a hospital.

“Those who are getting sick are younger and the ones getting hospitalized are mostly in their 40s and 50s, and whereas in January they were primarily from urban areas now they’re almost all from rural Maine,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital network. “It’s a different type of pandemic right now.”

That is probably literally the case. A more contagious and virulent form of the coronavirus, the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom, was found in Maine in early February and is now the dominant strain in the United States. It appears to more readily transmit between young people but is not resistant to vaccines.

All of the COVID-19 inpatients recently admitted to Maine Medical Center in Portland, the state’s largest hospital, were unvaccinated, Mills said, but their average age was 49, down from 75 last spring. “E.R. docs say they are busy, busy, busy with lots more young people sick with COVID, though the majority go home,” she said. “I guess it’s a call to arms – we need more arms and to get vaccine into them.”

The number of people statewide hospitalized with the disease hit 119 Thursday, the highest level since Feb. 8. Forty-eight were in intensive care, the most since Feb. 3, creating an extra burden at a time when many hospitals are responding to pent-up demand from non-COVID patients who may have delayed treatment until after they were vaccinated.

“The occupancy of our hospitals (is) quite high right now, and EMMC is at very, very high occupancy,” said Dr. James Jarvis, physician incident commander at Northern Light Health and director of clinical education at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, the state’s second largest hospital. “If we were to have other COVID-positive patients, it would be hard for us to meet other people’s needs now without delaying care.”

EMMC saw a sharp increase in COVID-19 inpatients over the past week, going from six last Friday to 13 Thursday for an average of 7.7 per day for the week, up from 4.9 last week. The 352-bed hospital was the site of the worst single-day burden of the pandemic on Dec. 31, when it had 55 confirmed inpatients. All of the inpatients cared for Thursday were from outside Penobscot County, Jarvis said.

Lewiston’s CMMC, now the state’s hardest-hit hospital, saw an average of 18.2 confirmed COVID-19 inpatients daily for six days ending Wednesday, breaking its record of 16 in late January. Eight of the 17 inpatients being cared for Wednesday were under 60, and five were under 50, according to the hospital, a 250-bed medical center.

Androscoggin County has one of the highest per capita new COVID-19 case rates in the country with a daily average of 80 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days, the second highest rate in the northeastern U.S. after Providence, Rhode Island, according to The New York Times.

York County’s largest hospital, Southern Maine Health Care medical center in Biddeford, saw a sharp increase in COVID-19 inpatients, going from an average of 6.7 last week to 12.3 per day for the week ending Thursday.

MaineGeneral in Augusta has seen a slow but steady increase in COVID-19 inpatient burden over the past month, which now stands at 12.3 inpatients per day, up from 10.4 last week and the most since early February.

Maine Med’s COVID burden went down slightly, from an average of 18.6 inpatients per day last week to 12.4 this week, though the 613-bed hospital has high occupancy from non-COVID patients. Its intensive care unit was at 75 percent capacity Thursday, according to MaineHealth spokesman John Porter, and SMHC’s was fully occupied.

In his media briefing Thursday afternoon, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said new COVID-19 cases and hospitalization trends had been moving in tandem, but that over “the past eight or nine days” the admissions had risen disproportionately. “That’s of concern,” he said.

Northern Light’s Jarvis urged Mainers to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and get vaccinated. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.

With vaccines being rolled out, the pandemic had eased in recent months in the United States, but new cases are trending slightly higher now than a month ago. States reported an average of 62,956 positive tests and 720 deaths a day for the week ending Wednesday, according to The New York Times tracker.

For much of the pandemic, Maine has been one of the best performing states in the country in terms of per capita disease prevalence, but as of Thursday it had risen to the sixth worst in the country with 31 new cases a day per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in New England and far exceeding that of Massachusetts, which ranks 12th (with 24 per 100,000), according to the Times.

Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator in that they typically occur one to three weeks after a person is exposed to the disease, but unlike other metrics, it is not dependent on who and how many people were tested. They can end in three ways: recovery, death or transfer to another facility.

The Press Herald compiles inpatient data directly from the hospitals and hospital networks. The data does not include outpatients or inpatients suspected of having the virus but who were never tested. The survey includes most of the state’s hospitals, accounting for nearly all of the statewide hospitalizations reported each week by the Maine CDC.


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