State health officials said coronavirus variant omicron doesn’t appear to be widespread in Maine yet, but that’s almost certain to change within a couple weeks. And they fear it could add stress to a health care system already at its limit.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Wednesday that the more contagious omicron variant accounts for an estimated 3 percent of new cases in Maine. But that number is based on samples from positive COVID-19 tests that were screened more than a week ago and is certainly higher now based on trends seen elsewhere.

He urged Maine residents to “be smart about omicron,” especially as the holiday approaches.

“There is some chatter that it might be mild, but the bottom line is we don’t know,” Shah said. “There are still a lot of scientific questions out there that need to be answered.”

Even if omicron does prove milder than the delta variant – which isn’t settled – it could still lead to more hospitalizations and deaths simply because it’s so transmissible. Shah said people need to think, perhaps more than ever, about the community risk rather than their individual risk.

The questions and concerns about omicron are growing as Maine’s health care network anticipates the arrival of federal emergency medical crews that President Biden said Tuesday would be sent to Maine this week. Hospital officials said they are still waiting for details about when the help would come.

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The Maine Medical Association, which represents the state’s physicians, pleaded for residents to get vaccinated or boosted and to wear masks while indoors to help limit spread. The organization also called on businesses statewide to again require masking of all employees and the public.

“We can all do something important to fight COVID-19,” said Dr. Jeff Barkin, the association’s president. “As a psychiatrist, I know how seriously your lives have changed and how much you miss your loved ones, but there’s a real and dangerous risk we could lose all progress. Please, do the right thing. Get vaccinated. Get your booster. And wear a mask.”

Karen Burrows of Buxton receives a Moderna booster shot from Kevin Montoya of the Westbrook Fire Department during a walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Westbrook Community Center on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Vaccinations have picked up in recent weeks, particularly among people seeking booster doses. Over the last seven days, Maine has been averaging more than 9,000 doses per day and roughly 75 percent have been boosters.

Overall, Maine has administered 951,913 final doses of vaccine, representing 70.8 percent of all residents, and 433,343 boosters, or 32.2 percent of the population. But there remain wide geographic disparities in vaccinations that have left large pockets of the state under-vaccinated and vulnerable. The state’s highest vaccinated county, Cumberland, has a rate 23 percentage points higher than the lowest vaccinated county, Somerset.

Meanwhile, the Maine CDC reported 1,462 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and five additional deaths, adding to a wave of high virus transmission just days before many will gather for the holiday.

With the new cases, the seven-day case average now stands at 934, up from 670 cases on average this time one month ago and from 453 cases per day two months ago, according to data from the Maine CDC.

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PREDICTING OMICRON’S TRAJECTORY

Cases have been increasing steadily across the country as well, fueled by the omicron variant, which has become the dominant strain in just a matter of weeks. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day case average is now 149,331 cases, which is an increase of 63 percent over 91,637 cases on average this time last month. The average hasn’t been this high since early September, when the delta variant was ravaging much of the country.

Maine’s rate of cases over the last seven days, 489 per 100,000 people, ranks 11th among all states and is substantially higher than the national rate of 315 cases per 100,000 people. The Northeast and Rust Belt states are being hit hardest of late.

Ryan Tewhey, who heads the research team at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor that conducts most of screening for coronavirus variants in Maine, said this week’s round of DNA sequencing – which finishes Friday – “should tell us what trajectory the state is on” with regard to omicron.

“Until we have the new data, we need to rely on older data and how states that are ahead of us on the omicron curve are behaving to make any estimates of the current situation in Maine,” he said.

Tewhey also said it’s important to remember that the sequencing report his team produces has a one- to two-week lag, which means “the hard numbers from our sequencing is not the current reality.”

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“Again, using other states as a reference point, omicron is likely a significant fraction of news cases in Maine right now and quickly growing,” he said.

Health officials predict things could get worse after the holiday, and the Biden administration is taking steps to alleviate the strain on hospitals and to shore up testing, including making 500 million tests available to households early next year. Biden also announced he was sending ambulance crews to Maine to help transport patients and relieve strain on hospitals and the state’s emergency responders.

Many Maine hospitals already have begun receiving help from Maine Army National Guard members, and Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will send ambulance teams to eight hospitals. The FEMA workers will work with local emergency medical services crews on non-emergency transportation of patients among facilities to match patients with open beds.

FEDERAL AID WELCOMED

Details about when they might arrive and the number of personnel were still unknown Wednesday, according to hospital officials. But news about the federal support was welcomed by the medical community.

“Transportation for patients is a critical component of decompressing our overly stressed hospitals,” said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. “A rare open bed does no good if we can’t get the patient to it in a timely manner. Increasing ambulance capacity is a big part of the solution to this crisis.”

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Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, said Wednesday that they are still awaiting details about the timing of these ambulance crews from FEMA. But he said the help can’t come soon enough.

“Every day individuals who need a hospital bed are being boarded in our emergency rooms … where they are often not getting the care they need,” he said. “If we don’t all take this seriously … someone may die because the right bed in the right place at the right time is not available.”

Another trend that has been complicating matters for hospitals, Jarvis said, is the length of stay for COVID patients. He said the majority are now there five days or more, with many staying weeks or even months.

Asked what Northern Light could do if the recent steps don’t make a difference,

“Unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of next steps,” Jarvis said.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said state officials plan for different scenarios and assess each situation as it arises, but she stressed that the there isn’t a single rigid plan that’s based on crossing some threshold of hospitalizations.

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“I’m excited about the fact that each week we’ve learned about different ways to expand our capacity,” she said.

HOSPITALIZATIONS DIP

Hospitalizations decreased to 375 on Wednesday, 12 fewer than Tuesday’s total, which was a pandemic high. Of those, 124 are in critical care and 60 are on ventilators. The numbers are still among the highest of the pandemic. As has been the case for months, unvaccinated individuals are far more likely to be hospitalized and even more likely to need critical care.

Among those hospitalized are eight children, four of whom are in critical care.

The number of COVID-19 patients has begun to rise across the country as well. As of this week, an average of 60,907 people were in the hospital each day, according to the U.S. CDC. One month ago, the average was 43,096.

Deaths are averaging more than 1,000 every day nationwide, and more than 800,000 Americans have died from the virus since March 2020. That’s by far the most of any country.

In Maine, October, November and December were three of the five deadliest months of the pandemic. Only December 2020 and January 2021 saw more deaths.

Lambrew ended Wednesday’s briefing by acknowledging the high levels of stress and anxiety some residents might be feeling. She urged people to be mindful of their own mental health and drew attention to resources, including the StrengthenME hotline for people looking for coping strategies and resources before crises arrive, 207-221-8198; the Frontline Warmline for health care workers and first responders, 207-221-8196; and the statewide crisis line, 888-568-1112.

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