More Maine residents were in critical care with COVID-19 or connected to ventilators on Thursday than at any point since the pandemic began 18 months ago.

While the 193 total hospitalizations in Maine is still shy of last winter’s peak numbers, the 74 patients in intensive care unit beds is the most to date. Additionally, 38 of those people – roughly 20 percent of all hospitalizations – required ventilators to assist with breathing.

Meanwhile, infection rates continue to rise in Maine.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 620 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and five additional deaths as the delta variant spreads across the state, particularly among the unvaccinated. The five deaths occurred in Knox, Penobscot and York counties, and four of the five were men 80 or older while one was a man in his 40s.

Maine CDC staff were working through a backlog of more than 2,400 positive test results as of Wednesday, so the 620 new cases represent infections reported over multiple days rather than during the previous 24-hour period.

But with case numbers and positive test rates rising, it is possible that Maine could eclipse the record 207 hospitalizations reported on Jan. 13.

Between 70 and 75 percent of those hospitalized – and nearly 100 percent of people in the ICU on some days – are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the Maine CDC said.

In an interview Thursday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said he hates to keep saying the same thing because it sounds like a cliché.

“It’s deeply concerning,” he said about current hospitalizations and the record number of ICU patients. “There is a saying that what’s predictable is preventable. That’s kind of what keeps me up at night. The delta surge was predictable. The question is: How many of the instances of people being hospitalized or in the ICU or on ventilators, how many of those are preventable?”

Because hospitalization numbers fluctuate regularly, Shah said he didn’t have an exact number of critical care patients who are unvaccinated, but it has routinely been 90 to 95 percent.

On Wednesday, Northern Light Health released data showing that 22 of the 23 patients in ICUs across its hospital network were unvaccinated, as were 10 of the 11 people connected to ventilators.

Penobscot County saw the biggest jump with 134 new cases followed by York and Cumberland – the state’s most populous counties – with 95 new cases each. But the counties with the highest seven-day case rates when measured against their populations were Waldo, Somerset, Aroostook, Penobscot, Kennebec and Piscataquis, most of which are rural counties with lower case rates before the most recent surge.

Masks are recommended for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in indoor, public settings in all 16 counties in Maine because of high or substantial levels of community transmission.

Maine continues to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, trailing only slightly behind Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts in terms of the percent of the total population that has been inoculated against COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, 72.2 percent of eligible Mainers had received the final dose of either the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. That number falls to 66.5 percent when looking at Maine’s entire population of 1.3 million people but is well above the national figure of 53.3 percent, according to the latest figures from the U.S. CDC.

Maine also has third-lowest case rate per 100,000 residents and the fourth-lowest death rate in the nation for the entirety of the pandemic, according to tracking by The New York Times. But infection rates are rising faster in Maine than every other New England state except Rhode Island amid the surge being driven by the more contagious delta variant.

Over the past seven days, Maine has averaged 26.7 cases for every 100,000 residents compared to just 15.6 cases in Connecticut and 22.5 cases for every 100,000 Massachusetts residents. The national average over the past week was 45 cases for every 100,000 residents, led by Tennessee and South Carolina with roughly 100 cases for every 100,000 people.

Maine’s large number of new cases – representing the fourth time this month a single report topped 600 cases – likely represents new positive test results received by the state over multiple days rather than during the previous 24-hour period. During his Wednesday briefing, Shah said agency staffers were working through more than 2,400 positive test results that had to be reviewed to distinguish new infections from repeat positive tests of known cases.

Shah said the Maine CDC was receiving 420-440 positive test results every day and that additional staff have been added to the review team.

“We anticipate that there will be sustained, high numbers of cases as we make our way through those 2,441 labs,” Shah said on Wednesday.

Maine’s seven-day average of new cases continues to trend upward, standing at 359 as of Thursday compared to 203 just two weeks ago and 79 at the beginning of August. The state’s average daily infection rate – 27 cases per 100,000 residents – is among the highest in New England but remains lower than the national average of 45 cases.

The case surge has largely been driven by infections among the unvaccinated, although the number of “breakthrough” infections among vaccinated individuals is rising.

Hospitalizations are also at their highest point since mid-January and could increase further given that hospitalizations typically lag new infections by several weeks.

The spike in cases has strained hospital resources. MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals, has dialed back elective surgeries to make room for unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

“We don’t have an end in sight to when we can resume normal capacity,” Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer at MaineHealth, said earlier this week.

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 79,423 confirmed or potential cases of COVID-19 in the state since March 2020. There have been at least 951 deaths linked to the viral disease in Maine.

One hospital in Maine is partnering with Massachusetts General Hospital to offer specialty care to individuals who are still experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 after recovering from the disease.

Mercy Hospital in Portland, which is part of the Northern Light Health network, brought together specialists to evaluate and treat sufferers of so-called “long-COVID,” which can manifest in a wide variety of ways. In some cases, individuals have reported severe fatigue, shortness of breath or other debilitating symptoms long after they have been deemed recovered.

“We’re finding more and more people are experiencing symptoms months after recovering from COVID-19,” Dr. Su-Anne Hammond, medical director for Northern Light Mercy Primary Care, said in a statement. “We have been fortunate to collaborate with Massachusetts General Hospital on the care of post-COVID patients, and we look forward to helping more people in the weeks and months ahead.”

Patients seeking evaluations for lingering post-COVID symptoms can call Mercy Hospital at 207-857-8375 or can find more information on the hospital’s website,  to schedule an appointment. Additional information on the service, as well as examples of post-COVID symptoms, can be found on Mercy Hospital’s website.

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