The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals spiked again Thursday, increasing by 23 patients in one day to set yet another record as the omicron wave spreads deeper into the state.

Southern Maine hospitals are seeing the biggest surge of patients, a result of the omicron variant first taking hold in more populated parts of the state. The highly contagious strain is expected to drive hospitalizations even higher and eventually drive up patient counts in other parts of the state, as well.

As of Thursday, 436 people were hospitalized, an increase of 25 percent from two weeks ago. Maine crossed the 300-patient threshold less than two months ago, and barely topped 200 patients during the surge last winter.

Despite the high total, Maine is not seeing a similar increase in the number of patients needing critical care or ventilators, a sign that the omicron variant may be leading to less severe illness for some. Of those currently hospitalized, 103 are in critical care and 53 are on ventilators. Those totals have decreased slightly over the last two weeks.

Nevertheless, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah cautioned people about taking the omicron surge lightly, particularly because of how much it’s straining the health care system overall.

“Even if omicron were say 10 percent milder than delta but still 200 percent more contagious, the sum of that impact on our population is greater than its impact on any individual,” he said.

Major hospitals in the southern quarter of the state – including Maine Medical Center in Portland, Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, Central Maine Medial Center in Lewiston and Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick – are caring for record numbers of people severely affected by COVID-19.

Maine Med, the state’s largest hospital, had a daily average of 71.6 confirmed COVID-19 inpatients for the week ending Thursday, the highest figure recorded anywhere in Maine since the pandemic began and up 31 percent from 54.6 last week. SMHC had 25.2 per day (up from 21.9 last week) and Midcoast 16.9 (up from 14.3). CMMC’s figure was a 36 per day for the six days ending Wednesday, up from 25.9.

MAINE MED PATIENT RECORD

On Thursday, Maine Med was caring for 84 confirmed patients, the highest number ever reported by any hospital in the state and 11 more than the previous record Maine Med set the day before.

“Things are very, very tight,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, the parent entity of Maine Med, SMHC and Midcoast. “The glimmer of goodness is that the ICUs in our health care system are steady and not increasing proportionately with the surge in regular medical-surgical inpatients.” She said this was likely due to most recent admissions being from people infected with the omicron variant, which is more contagious but less virulent than the previous delta strain of the coronavirus.

Hospitals in other parts of the state reported heavy COVID-19 burdens, but not record-breaking levels. However, the state’s second largest hospital, Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, reported a sharp spike, with average daily inpatient levels going from 33 last week to 51.3 this week, a 55 percent jump. One smaller hospital, Inland in Waterville, reported a record burden with seven inpatients each day for the week.

Registered nurse Cassandra Pateneaude cares for a patient in a busy hallway in the emergency department at Maine Medical Center last month. Photo contributed by Maine Medical Center

Shah was asked Wednesday about hospitalizations in light of some states differentiating between individuals who are hospitalized because of COVID-19 and those who test positive for the virus after being admitted to the hospital for other reasons. Some experts say so many people are getting infected with the omicron variant and not experiencing severe illness that the two groups should be counted separately. Maine includes both types of patients in its hospitalization counts.

“When it comes to the hospital, and it’s a hospital that’s under stress and strain, it doesn’t quite matter whether the patient who’s coming in the door has COVID,” Shah said. “Because the impact on the hospital is equivalent in many respects.”

Patients who test positive, for instance, still have to be separated from other patients and cared for by medical workers who take extra precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

Maine health officials also reported 1,555 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and three additional deaths.

SEVEN-DAY AVERAGE HITS 1,037

With the new cases, the seven-day average increased to 1,037, compared to 727 cases on average two weeks ago. The number of new cases reported each day doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole picture anymore, because many are from tests submitted days earlier and because there is a significant backlog of tests that needs to be processed. Additionally, many individuals might be testing positive with at-home tests, and those results aren’t necessarily reported to state officials.

But there is no question transmission is more widespread than ever. Shah said Thursday that the state’s seven-day positivity rate increased to 20.8 percent, the highest of the pandemic. That means roughly one of every five PCR tests being conducted is coming back positive. The state also is processing more tests than at any other point, 848 for every 100,000 residents.

The CDC has said that the percentage of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who are unvaccinated has hovered around 70 percent for several weeks. The percentage of critical care patients who are unvaccinated is higher still. The disparity between fully vaccinated patients and unvaccinated patients is even starker when considering that the number of unvaccinated people in Maine is less than half the number of those who are fully vaccinated.

The increased number of patients in hospitals, coupled with a high number of workers who are out sick with COVID-19, prompted Gov. Janet Mills this week to activate 169 members of the Maine National Guard to assist hospitals. Details about where those members will be directed and when they will be deployed have not been released, but the goal is for guard members to assist in non-clinical roles that will help free up beds faster.

Hospitals have increasingly been forced to be more creative with staff.

CONTINGENCY STAFFING

Northern Light Health, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, on Wednesday moved five of its smaller, more rural hospitals to contingency staffing plans, which reduced the quarantine period from 10 days to five. The move was made as Northern Light reported more than 600 employees were out sick.

In another sign that Maine is struggling to keep pace with the rapid spread of omicron, the Department of Education announced Wednesday that schools will no longer be required to do contact tracing for positive cases, provided the schools have a universal masking policy.

Shah explained that the decision was made after many school officials communicated that the process of contact tracing was becoming overly burdensome and not all that effective anymore. Some schools have switched to remote learning this week because too many staff members were out sick and more are likely to follow in the coming weeks. Eight schools have active outbreaks, which is now defined as at least 15 percent of students and staff absent with illness. There were none this time last week.

Cases have soared across the country as well in recent days to their highest level of the pandemic. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day average for cases is about 760,000, a staggering 170 percent increase from just two weeks ago. Hospitalizations also are at their highest level in the U.S. – 124,163 on a seven-day average, compared to 67,883 COVID-19 patients two weeks earlier.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 158,087 confirmed or probable cases and 1,626 deaths in Maine, according to the Maine CDC. Both remain among the lowest per capita of any state.

Although the current surge is unprecedented, there are signs that it could be short-lived. In some major metropolitan areas that saw a surge of omicron cases before Maine, like New York and Boston, cases are falling nearly as rapidly as they increased. That trend has played out in other countries as well.

Shah said Wednesday that Maine has typically lagged behind greater Boston by about a week in “epidemiological time.”

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this story

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