As COVID-19 hospitalizations among the state’s unvaccinated population continue to climb in Maine, the state’s largest health care network is postponing some elective surgical procedures to maintain room for pandemic patients and prioritize those most in need of hospital stays.

The move comes as Maine’s case count has become New England’s worst, averaging 28.6 new cases per 100,000 residents during the last seven-day reporting period, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. The national average is 40 cases per 100,000, while hard-hit states like South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia have more than 80 cases per 100,000 people.

“We’re not calling this a shutdown, but it is a dial back,” Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer at MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland, said Tuesday. “Maine Med reduced surgeries by 30 percent last week, and all of our hospitals are reducing surgeries that require a hospital admission after surgery.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations have soared over the past month driven by the delta variant, going from 49 statewide on Aug. 7 to 183 on Tuesday, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those currently hospitalized, 68 are in critical care and 29 are on ventilators. Only 43 of the state’s 326 critical care beds were available Tuesday, according to Maine CDC statistics.

About four of every five patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to state statistics.

Boomsma said the tightening hospital capacity for non-COVID patients is similar to what Maine Med experienced at the previous peak of the pandemic in mid-January. That also was the last time Maine had 183 COVID patients in hospitals statewide.

The number of new cases also continues to climb in Maine, and with hospitalizations following cases, it may take months before hospital capacity eases enough for those procedures to resume.

“We don’t have an end in sight to when we can resume normal capacity,” Boomsma said.

No new case numbers were reported by the state on Tuesday because of the holiday Monday. On Wednesday, the Maine CDC will release four days worth of results and an updated seven-day average.

The measures to save hospital capacity for COVID patients is reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic. Hospital systems shut down for all but the most urgent surgeries in the early months of 2020, but resumed later that spring.

MaineHealth is the parent company of seven other hospitals in the state in addition to Maine Med, including Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington and Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

Boomsma said some examples of surgeries that are being postponed include hip and knee replacements, some back surgeries, non-emergency abdominal or head and neck surgeries. She said some colonoscopies also are being delayed to free up staff to take care of COVID-19 patients.

She said these are surgeries that can be safely postponed, although they can affect the patients’ quality of life while they are waiting.

Andrew Soucier, a spokesman for Northern Light Health, the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, didn’t have any announcements on Tuesday about patient care during COVID-19.

“We’ll continue to assess the situation as things change,” Soucier said.

A two-minute video produced by Maine Medical Center released on social media over the weekend portrayed the dire conditions inside the hospital caring for COVID-19 patients. The patients now are mostly unvaccinated and are often a lot younger than earlier in the pandemic, when it was largely seniors who were being hospitalized.

Kimberly Matheson, a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients, said in the video that “we come to work every day and we know it’s going to be a hard day.”

“I’m just anxious about what the day is going to bring. What’s going to happen, who is going to die,” Matheson said.

George Gadbois, a patient from South Portland, said in the hospital’s video that “you never want to get this disease. It’s the worst feeling you could ever have” and that he plans to “get the shot when they tell me to.”

Matheson said some patients say “I wish I would have been vaccinated. And then they go on to be intubated (put on a ventilator). Some of those people live. Some of them don’t.”

During an Aug. 26 briefing, hospital executives from four hospital systems in Maine pleaded with the public to get vaccinated to prevent further hospitalizations.

Although Maine has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, the more contagious delta variant is sweeping through the unvaccinated population.

While 72 percent of Maine’s population that is eligible for the shot has gotten immunized, that still leaves more than 300,000 unvaccinated Mainers who have easy access to free shots. Those under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, but the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the vaccine for younger age groups later this year or early next year.


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