Federal ambulance teams are expected to arrive in Maine on Tuesday to support hospitals bracing for a post-holiday rise in the number of COVID-19 patients needing care.

Meanwhile, Maine health officials reported 1,115 new cases of COVID-19 and four additional deaths on Thursday, adding to the toll of what is already the worst surge the state has seen during the pandemic.

A total of 16 emergency medical technicians and paramedics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be dispatched in teams of two to eight hospitals across the state. The ambulance crews will arrive Tuesday and be here until Jan. 26, according to a Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson.

The FEMA-contracted workers will help transport patients from hospitals to other facilities to keep patients as close to home as possible and to free up much-needed space for new patients. Hospital officials have said they have struggled to move patients as quickly as possible to other facilities, such as nursing homes. Even before the surge of cases and hospitalizations stressed the state’s health care system this fall, Maine’s emergency medical services had been struggling with a chronic shortage of staff that’s been worsened by the pandemic.

MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care system, will receive four ambulance teams, to be stationed at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington and Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. The teams are FEMA contractors who are on standby to travel to areas where help is needed because of disasters or other emergencies.

“MaineHealth thanks the governor’s office for requesting these ambulances and the federal government for providing them, as we strive towards our vision of working together so our communities are the healthiest in America,” said Dr. Andy Mueller, MaineHealth’s CEO.

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Hospitals, which have been under tremendous strain in recent weeks because of a surge in unvaccinated patients, already have gotten some help from Maine Army National Guard members, who were activated by Gov. Janet Mills to work in non-clinical roles to free up medical staff.

And the Biden administration sent a 15-member medical surge team to Maine Medical Center in Portland this month to set up a non-COVID acute care unit and expand the hospital’s ability to care for more patients infected with the virus. The physicians, nurses, paramedics and other personnel just completed their two-week assignment as part of the National Disaster Medical System.

“We want to thank this team of dedicated medical professionals for everything they have done to help us create additional inpatient capacity during a very challenging time for our care team,” Maine Medical Center President Jeff Sanders said in a written statement.

With Thursday’s new cases, the seven-day average now stands at 909, which is up from 694 cases on average this time last month but down slightly from 1,048 cases on average one week ago. The state’s positivity rate has decreased slightly, to just under 10 percent over the last seven days.

Overall, Maine has logged 140,536 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 1,472 deaths since the pandemic began, according to data tracked by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It was only three months ago that Maine saw its 1,000th COVID-related death, and now the state is rapidly closing in on 1,500.

YOUNG DYING AT HIGHER RATE

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Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday that the biggest growth in deaths has been in younger individuals, people in their 40s and 50s, who are unvaccinated. Even with the high numbers of deaths recently, though, Maine trails only Hawaii and Vermont for the lowest COVID-19 deaths per capita of any state since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations declined in Maine for the second straight day, although the numbers are still well above any previous wave of the pandemic in Maine.

As of Thursday, there were 355 COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals, including 120 in critical care and 68 individuals on ventilators. Two days ago, there were 387 people in the hospital. Even with the slight decrease, there have been at least 350 people in the hospital with COVID-19 for 18 consecutive days and at least 100 critical care patients for 22 straight days. On Wednesday, eight children were among those hospitalized.

Although the current surge of new cases in Maine has been driven by the delta variant, health officials expect the omicron variant to soon become the dominant strain. The U.S. CDC has estimated that as many as three out of every four new cases is omicron, which has proven to be even more highly transmissible than delta but possibly milder. Even if omicron does end up leading to milder symptoms for most who contract it, hospitalizations and deaths could remain high simply because so many more people might be infected.

Both Shah and Ryan Tewhey, who heads the research team at The Jackson Laboratory that’s conducting most of the genomic sequencing to detect variants in Maine, said it’s likely only a matter of time before omicron supplants delta here.

Across the U.S., cases have increased by 74 percent in the last month, from 92,438 cases per day on average to 161,261 cases, the highest it’s been since the beginning of September. The nationwide rate over the last seven days is 340 cases for every 100,000 people. Maine, with 486 cases per 100,000 people, ranks 10th over that time, but all states in the Northeast and Rust Belt are being hard hit.

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The number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals has increased as well, to the highest level in more than two months, and that rise is expected to continue because hospitalizations often lag case spikes.

‘BE SMART ABOUT OMICRON’

Shah urged Maine residents to “be smart about omicron,” and to continue taking safety precautions when gathering. The Maine Medical Association, which represents the state’s physicians, also pleaded for Mainers to wear masks in public and private indoors gatherings when possible and to get vaccinated or boosted if they haven’t already done so.

Demand for vaccinations has been strong in recent weeks. The state has been administering an average of more than 9,000 doses per day over the last seven days and roughly 75 percent of those shots have been boosters.

Overall, Maine has administered 953,132 final doses of vaccines, which represents 70.9 percent of all residents, and 440,739 boosters, which accounts for 32.8 percent. Even with that high rate, there are many areas of the state where rates are much lower. Franklin, Piscataquis and Somerset counties, for instance, have yet to reach a rate of 60 percent fully vaccinated, and five other counties are still below 65 percent. There are still more than 325,000 residents over the age of 5 who are eligible for the vaccine but haven’t gotten it.

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