Maine hospitals straining to care for COVID-19 patients got help Tuesday from the Biden administration as Federal Emergency Management Agency ambulance crews arrived to transport patients and free up capacity.

The FEMA teams were expected Tuesday, and had already started working at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, said John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals.

Porter said the teams would help transport patients from one hospital to another or to rehabilitation centers so hospitals can more quickly make room for new patients who need care.

“Patient transports are an important piece of the puzzle in terms of maximizing our capacity,” Porter said.

A FEMA ambulance crew also arrived Tuesday at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, News Center Maine reported Tuesday.

“Due to the staffing shortage, we have had a challenge in getting timely transport for patients who need it. In some instances, it’s been hours, even days, (that) patients are waiting to be transported,” MaineGeneral Health President Chuck Hays told News Center Maine.

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FEMA is sending a total of 16 emergency medical technicians and paramedics in teams of two to eight hospitals across the state, and equipping each team with an ambulance. They are expected to stay in Maine until Jan. 26.

The help arrives as public health experts expect Maine case counts to rise because of the more contagious omicron variant, which made up 10 percent of samples sequenced at The Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor from Dec. 12-18, up from 1 percent the previous week.

Because omicron has caused exponential case-number growth in some areas, public health experts say the same type of growth is expected in Maine. Preliminary research indicates that omicron causes less severe disease – on average – than earlier variants, but a flood of cases all at once could still further strain hospitals. Some states are seeing a rise in hospitalizations, although not as fast as the rise in new infections.

Meanwhile, Maine reported 1,423 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday – the first new report on case counts since Dec. 24 – and 17 additional deaths. State offices were closed Friday for the Christmas holiday, and the state does not report case counts over the weekend.

Hospitalizations on Tuesday stayed the same as Monday, at 330 statewide, down from a peak of 387 on Dec. 21.

While 1,423 cases over four days would be far below recent state averages, the CDC has not been able to keep up with a flood of positive tests in recent weeks and its updates no longer reflect all new infections. Because of the backlog, many of the cases reported Tuesday were submitted to the state in mid-December and had to be reviewed by CDC staff to eliminate duplicates.

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Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said the agency “received fewer test results during the holiday weekend,” but expects higher case counts in updates Wednesday through Friday.

The rate of omicron transmission in Maine is faster than health officials had expected based on the spread elsewhere. Nationally, the omicron variant is dominant, making up 58 percent of cases as of Dec. 25, the latest federal data available. The previous week’s estimate of 72 percent of all U.S. cases was revised downward to 22 percent.

“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,” Ryan Tewhey, who leads a team of researchers at The Jackson Laboratory that monitors coronavirus strains for the state, said Monday.

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, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, said Monday.

But hospitalization reports from other countries deeper into the omicron wave hold potentially good news.

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“Report from U.K. on COVID hospitalizations: admissions are well below what was seen in prior waves, and on proportional basis, are significantly less relative to reported cases,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner, in a tweet Tuesday. “Those people being admitted are also less severe, with fewer patients requiring oxygen or critical care.”

Maine officials, meanwhile, are reviewing new federal guidance concerning the time infected Americans should isolate to keep from spreading the disease.

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended reducing isolation times from 10 days to five for people infected by COVID, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

“I welcome this change in guidance,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement Monday. “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.”

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a South Portland pediatrician and infectious disease expert, said Tuesday that she supports the move. The 10-day quarantine policy was formed before there were vaccines, she said, but now that there are effective vaccines and boosters available, the new policy will help reduce disruptions to work and school. While it’s true those who have fallen ill with COVID-19 can be contagious for 10 days, an infected person is most likely contagious one to two days before the onset of symptoms and three to five days after symptoms begin, Blaisdell said.

“The CDC policy represents a new shift in learning to live with the virus,” Blaisdell said.

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The Mills administration is working on what the new guidelines will mean for Maine schools.

Long, the Maine CDC spokesman, said Tuesday that Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, and the agency’s epidemiologist are “reviewing the U.S. CDC revisions and will provide input to the Maine Department of Education.”

Since the pandemic began, Maine has reported 143,213 cases of COVID-19, and 1,492 deaths.

The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 752 on Tuesday, compared with 939 a week ago and 399 a month ago. Among hospitalized COVID patients, there were 11o people in intensive care Tuesday and 56 on ventilators.

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