The number of COVID-19 patients climbed again Wednesday as Maine health officials reported 1,504 new cases and two additional deaths, continuing a trend of sustained high virus transmission that’s putting tremendous strain on hospitals heading into another holiday season.

Hospitalizations reached another pandemic high and the number in critical care beds was one shy of the record set Tuesday.

There are now 380 people in Maine hospitals being treated for COVID-19, with 122 in intensive care and 60 on ventilators. Wednesday marked the 10th consecutive day of at least 350 COVID-19 patients, a trend that has forced many hospitals to cancel non-critical procedures and weigh difficult decisions about rationing health care. Unvaccinated people account for roughly two-thirds of those hospitalized and 85-90 percent of those in critical care.

“It’s overwhelming our system,” said Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, a statewide network that includes Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Mercy Hospital in Portland and several other facilities. “We’re not (treating patients) in hallways like you’ve seen in other states, but there are often few critical care beds available.”

Jarvis said the flood of patients in bigger hospitals has a “downstream effect” on smaller hospitals that might normally send more critical patients elsewhere but now don’t have that option.

“We’re seeing more patients being boarded in emergency rooms, which is not the proper place for most of these individuals,” he said.

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Several hospitals across the state are getting help this week from Maine Army National Guard members, who have been deployed in non-clinical roles by Gov. Janet Mills. Maine Medical Center in Portland also has been approved to receive a “surge response team” of clinicians from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston hopes to gain approval for a team this week as well.

One of the things guardsmen and women will assist with is monoclonal antibodies, which are used to treat COVID-19 patients.

“Our monoclonal antibody program has done a tremendous service to us all,” Jarvis said. “I wish we could issue more, but we’re hampered by supply and staffing concerns … but we know for a fact that has saved lives.”

Neverthless, Jarvis said, “sitting around waiting for a treatment is not the best option for protecting yourself.”

Maine’s seven-day daily case average now stands at 877, up from an average of 492 cases this time last month, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

SECOND HIGHEST SINGLE-DAY TOTAL

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Wednesday’s cases represent the second highest single-day total of the pandemic – trailing only last Thursday’s 2,148 new cases – although not all of the new cases occurred in the last 24 hours because the test volume has been higher than state officials can process on any day. Since the pandemic reached Maine in March 2020, there have been 132,884 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 1,378 deaths.

For several weeks, the spread has been highest in counties with lower vaccination rates. Franklin County, for instance, has the highest rate of cases over the last seven days (1,017 per 100,000 people) and the third-lowest vaccination rate (59 percent). Similarly, Piscataquis County has the third-highest rate of cases in the last seven days (995 per 100,000 people) and the second-lowest vaccination rate (58.6 percent).

Cumberland County, meanwhile, has both the highest rate of vaccinated residents (80 percent) and the lowest transmission rate (346 cases per 100,000 people).

Cases have been rising across the country, but the Northeast has been especially hard hit. Four New England states, including Maine, are in the top five states for new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days, according to the U.S. CDC. On Tuesday, the U.S. topped 800,000 deaths from COVID-19, which is by far the most of any country and represents approximately 15 percent of all COVID-19 deaths worldwide.

Vaccinations, meanwhile, have remained steady and demand appears to be increasing ahead of the holiday, particularly for boosters. Hundreds of people waited in line early Tuesday afternoon outside a clinic run by Northern Light Health at the former Pier 1 store at the Maine Mall in South Portland. More than 1,000 doses were administered between 1 and 7 p.m., a majority of them boosters. That clinic will run through Saturday and will reopen next week as well.

The Maine CDC also resumed a walk-in clinic at the Augusta Armory this week after seeing steady interest there several days last week.

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Jarvis said it was one year ago this week that Northern Light got its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think we all hoped we’d be in a much better place … but let’s not forget how far we’ve come in a year,” he said.

ONE YEAR SINCE FIRST VACCINATIONS

Mills also highlighted the one-year milestone of the first vaccines administered and praised Maine’s strong progress, which seems at odds with the current surge.

“Vaccinations save lives,” she said in a statement. “When vaccines became available against this deadly virus, we prioritized saving lives by vaccinating those at highest risk and then quickly expanding availability. Maine can be proud of our nation-leading progress over the past year, but our work is far from done. If you have not gotten vaccinated, please get your shot now. If you are eligible, please get a booster.”

As of Wednesday, Maine had administered 943,770 final doses of vaccine, representing 70.2 percent of residents, and 386,056 boosters, which is about 28.7 percent. Although the state’s overall rate is high, there remain wide geographic disparities. Southern and coastal counties have the highest rates, while rural and inland counties are seeing the lowest. Cumberland County is the highest vaccinated county at 80 percent, while Somerset County has the lowest percentage of residents fully vaccinated, 57 percent.

As cases have risen, so too has demand for COVID-19 tests, and providers are struggling to meet that demand.

Many pharmacies and health care organizations often don’t have immediate appointments. Portland International Jetport announced Wednesday that is has partnered with a public health service startup, Curative, to administer rapid PCR tests to passengers and the general public daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The tests are offered at no cost, although those with health insurance are asked to present their insurance cards.

Jarvis said testing will continue to be a challenge, largely because of supplies and staffing. He said people may have to call around to find appointments and said Northern Light will continue to look for ways to meet the demand.


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