The spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant has accelerated in Maine and experts are predicting the strain could be the dominant variant in the state by the end of the week, if it isn’t already.

A genomic sequencing report posted Monday by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says 10 percent of test samples collected Dec. 12-18 and sequenced were identified as omicron. That’s up from less than 1 percent of the samples from the previous week that were sequenced and identified as omicron, a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus that has quickly spread around the world. While it is the most recent data available, the lag time means omicron is believed to already be far more widespread than it was when the samples were collected.

And the rate of spread in Maine is faster than health officials had expected based on the spread elsewhere.

“Maine does seem to be going slightly faster at the initial rate, so I would say it’s either the dominant variant now or will be between now and the 30th,” said Ryan Tewhey, who leads a team of researchers at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor that monitors coronavirus strains for the state.

Maine health officials have predicted the spread of omicron and urged people to continue to exercise COVID-19 precautions, including vaccinations, wearing masks indoors and avoiding large gatherings.

“We have to assume it is growing and will probably grow quite exponentially, as it has everywhere else,” Dr. Dora Anne Mills said on Monday.

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Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital network, said booster shots are especially important in the fight against the variant as data from other countries suggest omicron has been generating more infections among the vaccinated, especially those who have not had booster shots. “The boosting is extremely important with omicron,” she said.

MILLS ON CALL WITH BIDEN

The latest science on omicron was among the topics that President Biden discussed during a call Monday with governors from around the country, including Gov. Janet Mills of Maine. The governor and Dr. Mills are sisters.

Biden and the governors discussed the use and distribution of COVID-19 treatments, expanding federal partnerships and resources to expand testing and keep schools open. The president pledged to support the states and urged governors to lead the efforts in their states, according to news reports.

Asked about the call, and whether Maine is considering mask mandates or other restrictions as some states have imposed to slow the spread of omicron, the Mills administration said the state has transitioned from the requirements, mandates and capacity limits that were the only tools at its disposal before vaccines became available.

“The surge in cases and hospitalizations Maine is experiencing is driven primarily by those who are not vaccinated,” Lindsay Crete, the governor’s spokesperson, said in an email Monday night. “Getting vaccinated remains the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus, which is why the governor continues to urge all Maine people to roll up their sleeves and get their shot, regardless of whether it’s their first or their third.

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Crete’s email also contained a statement from the governor on the guidance released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday to reduce isolation restrictions for Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

“I welcome this change in guidance,” the governor said. “Protecting the health of Maine people while minimizing disruption to their lives is paramount. With these updated recommendations, more Maine people will now be able to return to their lives safely and more quickly, and that can help us keep our economic recovery moving forward, keep our kids in schools, and be with our loved ones during this important time of year.”

HOSPITALIZATIONS DIP

Evidence of the omicron variant’s proliferation comes as Maine has seen a slight drop in the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. On Monday, there were 330 people hospitalized with COVID-19, down from 380 one week ago, including 111 in critical care and 63 on ventilators. The state has not reported new case numbers since Friday, when 1,244 new cases and three deaths were reported.

The deaths included two residents of Penobscot County and one person who lived in Piscataquis County. One was a woman and two were men. One was in their 50s, one in their 60s and one in their 70s.

Hospitalizations and the number of new cases both remain higher than what the state previously saw throughout much of the pandemic. And both are now expected to rise because of holiday gatherings and the spread of omicron.

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On Tuesday, Maine is expecting to welcome federal ambulance teams that will be dispatched to eight hospitals around the state to help transport patients from hospitals to other facilities to keep patients as close to home as possible and free up much-needed space for new patients.

As hospitals brace for another rise in patient numbers, Dr. Mills is concerned about their capacity to respond to omicron on the heels of the delta variant surge.

“What they’re seeing in other states and countries is omicron is so highly contagious that many healthcare workers are contracting it and they’re seeing exacerbated workforce shortages due to the variant,” she said. “We know people who are fully vaccinated are a bit protected, but they’re not nearly as protected as if they’re boosted and our boosting rates are really low still.”

A total of 74.5 percent of Maine’s eligible population ages 5 and up are vaccinated, according to state data. About 451,000 people, or 47 percent of the fully vaccinated population, have received booster shots.

DOMINANCE IN 20 DAYS

The state report posted Monday about omicron expanding is based on 67 samples from positive COVID-19 tests. The finding that 10 percent of samples are omicron could change slightly as more results are processed, but the report overall provides a good picture of omicron’s presence, said Tewhey, leader of the genomic sequencing effort at The Jackson Laboratory.

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Delta took about nine to 10 weeks to become the most prevalent variant circulating in Maine last summer, which was consistent with what other states saw, Tewhey said. “Omicron is much faster,” he said. “What we’re seeing in other states is it took an average of about 20 days or three weeks from when the first case was observed to omicron being the dominant strain in that state.”

Nationally, 73 percent of COVID-19 cases reported the week of Dec. 12-18 were omicron, according to the U.S. CDC. Maine officials  announced on Dec. 17 that the first omicron case had been detected in the state, although Tewhey said subsequent data have indicated the first case appeared as early as Dec. 10. The rate of spread in Maine suggests omicron will be the dominant variant by the end of this month, he said.

MaineHealth also conducts some limited monitoring of coronavirus strains in Maine and can determine if a case is the delta variant or something else. Two weeks ago, every sample tested was the delta variant, while last week 12 of 96 samples that were looked at were determined to not be delta.

Dr. Mills said those samples can be assumed to be omicron, though they will be sent to the state for confirmation through genomic sequencing. “Even though the state’s sample size is small and our sample size is small, they’re showing similar results,” she said.

Genomic sequencing is labor-intensive and expensive, which is why not every positive result is sent for sequencing. It also would be difficult for the state to sequence every sample because dozens of labs around the country report results to the Maine CDC, which would make it difficult to get samples from them. Some samples also may not have enough genetic material for the sequencing after extraction for the testing that determines whether an individual has COVID-19, Robert Long, a spokesman for the Maine CDC, said in an email.

PRECAUTIONS REMAIN THE SAME

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Regardless of which variant is dominant, Long said people should still take the same precautions, which include getting vaccinated, getting booster shots if it’s been six months since their last mRNA shot or two months since their Johnson & Johnson shot, getting their children vaccinated, wearing masks in indoor public spaces, staying home when sick and keeping children home if they’re sick.

While there are still many unanswered questions about omicron, Dr. Mills said early evidence shows the loss of taste and smell, which have been recognized as hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, may be less frequent with the new variant. “What I would tell people is if you have cold-like symptoms and you don’t have a loss of taste and smell, still get tested,” she said.

Scientists are still learning about omicron’s health effects, although countries that experienced early waves of the omicron surge have reported the symptoms are generally less severe, especially among those who have been vaccinated.

However, it can still cause severe illness and it is so much more contagious that it has caused an increase in hospitalizations in places where it has become the dominant variant in the community.

Several states, including Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey,  have seen a dramatic spike in cases, with the rate of new infections at the highest point of the entire pandemic, the New York Times reported. Hospitalizations also are rising, although not as fast as the number of new cases.

There also has been some evidence that the omicron surge may not last as long as the delta variant surge that began in the summer and continues to strain Maine’s health care system.

South Africa, where omicron was first detected in late November, saw a dramatic surge of cases but has now seen its infection rate drop 22 percent in the past 14 days, according to a global tracker maintained by the Times.

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