It was supposed to be over by now, or at least contained.

The arrival of vaccines, coupled with all the knowledge we’ve gained about COVID-19, promised a path to putting the pandemic behind us.

But omicron had other plans.

Coronavirus transmission is the highest it’s been, even in a state with a high vaccination rate. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 crossed 400 last week, a total that has crippled hospitals, forcing Gov. Janet Mills to call on the Maine National Guard.

While there are signs that the omicron surge might quickly be followed by a steep decline in transmission, the virus has proven that predictions aren’t promises.

The landscape has given rise to a new sense of anxiety for people still figuring out how to navigate a pandemic that will soon enter its third year. Meet some of these people below.

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Peter McMillen, 76, tested positive for COVID-19 last week with a store-bought test and was pretty sick for several days. He is vaccinated and boosted and had been staying out of crowded places. His domestic partner, Katharine Ingwersen, has also tested positive but has no symptoms other than fatigue. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Peter McMillen, 76, of Falmouth

Peter McMillen’s bout with COVID-19 in early January made him pretty sick, but also pretty angry.

The 76-year-old retired Portland parks department worker had been twice vaccinated, gotten a booster shot and was mostly staying out of crowds. He had heart bypass surgery in November and was scheduled for a follow-up in December – an angioplasty – but that was postponed as hospitals deal with the latest COVID surge.

So besides dealing with several days of severe fatigue, aches, congestion and other symptoms associated with the omicron variant, he also worried about his long-term health. His recent experience with the virus has left him upset that officials and his fellow citizens aren’t doing more to slow the pandemic, like mandating masks and getting vaccinated.

“I am not happy with irresponsible people taking up hospital beds,” said McMillen, who lives in Falmouth. “There’s no way I’d go to a movie or an event now, with no mask mandates. It’s crazy. People are dying.”

When McMillen started displaying COVID symptoms in the first week of January, he bought a rapid antigen test from a drugstore and tested positive. He said he tried to book an in-person PCR test – considered more reliable – at his doctor’s office and some drugstores but couldn’t find an open time slot. He said he could have gone to a local urgent care office, which tests people in their cars. But in his condition, he didn’t want to “wait around in my truck” and decided to stay home, isolate and rest. In about a week, he was feeling much better.

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McMillen shares a small apartment with his partner of more than 30 years, Katharine Ingwersen, who also tested positive with a home test, but didn’t display any symptoms.

Getting COVID won’t change McMillen’s routines much, he says. Since autumn, the supermarket and drugstore are about the only public indoor spaces he’s visited. And he’s always masked. He did go to a Portland restaurant in December, to have dinner with former co-workers. But he regrets that now, after seeing most people weren’t wearing masks. That restaurant visit was more than a month before he tested positive, so he doubts he contracted the virus there.

“I’ve been overly cautious. I really have no idea where I would have gotten it,” said McMillen. “If I hadn’t had the vaccine, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Before the pandemic, McMillen was fairly active. He and his partner had planned a trip to Cuba but the flight was canceled once COVID started spreading. McMillen also had a part-time job delivering auto parts for the Berlin City Honda car dealership in Portland, but gave it up when the pandemic started to avoid contact with people.

McMillen did visit relatives in Canada last summer, when case numbers were relatively low. But he has grandchildren in British Columbia whom he hasn’t seen in more than two years.

In November, McMillen found out he needed heart bypass surgery. His brother had recently suffered a heart attack caused by a congenital condition, so doctors suggested he get checked for blockages, which he had. Following a successful first surgery, McMillen was scheduled for the angioplasty at Maine Medical Center – a procedure to restore or increase blood flow to the heart – but that was postponed until late January because of crowded conditions at the hospital, he was told, although COVID was not mentioned specifically. He was told that his condition was stable, so the procedure could be safely postponed.

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Having COVID has stiffened McMillen’s resolve to keep as safe as he can, staying out of crowds and wearing masks, and to let others know they should do their part to keep everyone safe as well.

“We’re all in this together. That’s what I tell people,” he said.

— Ray Routhier

Nanci Skinner, a 50-year-old grocery store employee from Warren, has worked through the pandemic, being extra careful to not bring the virus home to her wife, who is 80 and has COPD. Skinner is frustrated that people have loosened up on precautions and doesn’t understand the attitude some people have that contracting COVID is inevitable. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Nanci Skinner, 50, of Warren

At a time when it seems like everyone knows someone who has COVID-19, it concerns Nanci Skinner that she doesn’t know the status of people she encounters in her job as a receiving clerk for Shaw’s.

“Back in the beginning, people were being a lot more careful about it. You could feel a little more confident because we were all taking the same precautions,” she said. “Now, it seems like people are acting like it’s just going away. It’s not.”

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As times passes, she has less faith that others are taking the pandemic seriously. Every day, she sees fewer people wearing masks and is perplexed by those who won’t get vaccinated.

But for Skinner, the stakes are high and letting up isn’t an option. Her wife, Sandra Sylvester, is 80 and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“If I was to come down with it, I’d probably be OK. If I brought it home to her, I could not forgive myself,” said Skinner, who is 50 and lives in Warren.

Skinner and her wife have been very careful since spring 2020 to follow all the precautions they could. Sylvester mostly stays home, but Skinner doesn’t have that option because of her job. She faithfully wears a mask and is diligent about using hand sanitizer and keeping space between herself and others, she said. Both were relieved to get vaccinated as soon as they were eligible.

They’ve skipped going out to eat, trips to the movies and socializing with friends. They miss spontaneous visits with family and lament that they haven’t been able to spend time with their youngest family members, who are growing up quickly but still too young to be vaccinated.

Skinner has traveled only once, to compete on “Jeopardy!” in California last July. It felt safe at the time because of the multiple PCR tests, mask requirements and social distancing during her trip and on set. But she wouldn’t travel now, she said, because of how people seem to have given up trying to fight the virus.

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“I think a lot of folks have gotten really relaxed about it, and I think it’s the wrong move,” she said.

As the omicron variant spreads rapidly across the country, Skinner finds herself feeling more discouraged. Her wife needs a minor back operation that will relieve pain and improve her quality of life, but it’s a low priority for medical facilities overwhelmed by COVID patients. They both worry all the time about the health of their young unvaccinated relatives.

Skinner knows some people believe it’s inevitable that everyone will get COVID as omicron rapidly spreads. She doesn’t share that view.

“It will not be me. Absolutely not, no way, no how. Not if I can possibly help it,” she said. “I don’t understand why you would invite that, to behave in a way that says, ‘OK, come and get me.’ I don’t get it.”

— Gillian Graham

Margret Valerio, 16, a junior at Casco Bay High School, knows more and more people who have contracted COVID-19 and worries about having to return to remote learning. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Margret Valerio, 16, of Portland

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Over the last few weeks, Margret Valerio has felt like the walls are closing back in.

Every day, more people the 16-year-old knows become infected with COVID-19. The list includes her 5-year-old niece and two close friends.

Margret has pulled back from socializing and going to many public places. She’s gone back to wearing a mask indoors and connecting with only a few friends.

The recent coronavirus surge makes the high school junior feel like she’s reliving the early days of the pandemic, and she dreads the possibility of going back to remote classes.

“Every day, I’m realizing more and more of my friends have it,” Margret said. “It kind of feels like we are going back to the beginning of March 2020 when everything shut down, just how crazy it was.”

The last two years have been a roller coaster for Margret and her classmates at Casco Bay High School in Portland. After months of virtual classes, the school went hybrid last spring, then fully in-person last fall, a back-and-forth that made her anxious.

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Given how much has changed in just a few years, it is difficult to imagine what “normal” will look like in the future. That’s compounded by the emergence of omicron and a staggering surge of cases hitting those closest to Margret.

“This coronavirus is really going to take time,” she said. “I am not 100 percent certain or hopeful we will get a normal senior year or a normal graduation anytime soon. I’m obviously not OK with it,” she said.

“We can honestly just hope for the best and really hold people accountable,” she added. “Not just holding the people in power responsible, but the people around us.”

For now, Margret’s doing what she can to keep herself, her family and her friends safe. She lives in North Deering with her two parents, 10-year-old brother, adult sister and young niece.

“My parents are very, very worried about me,” she said. “Throughout the whole thing they have said, ‘Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, change your clothes.’ ”

So far, Margret feels safe going to school. Everyone wears masks and the school nurse “works around the clock” to make sure people stay healthy.

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“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think a lot of students here would have gotten their vaccines,” Margret said.

But nearly two years of pandemic life has taken a toll on Margret and her peers.

“The pandemic really caused a lot of mental health issues for people around me,” she said. “People are not as outgoing, people are still dealing with family problems, people losing loved ones and all that.”

Outside of school, she’s pulled back from activities that seemed safe just a few months ago. There are no more trips to Spare Time bowling alley or hangouts with large groups.

“I don’t really hang out with people I don’t know. I usually hang out with the same people every day,” she said. “I know that being around random people isn’t really safe anymore.”

— Peter McGuire

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Anne Blais has been careful to follow precautions during the pandemic, including masking and getting vaccinated. When her husband contracted COVID after a small family gathering in December, they stayed in separate areas of their small ranch house in Biddeford and Anne avoided contracting COVID from her husband, which she credits to receiving a booster shot. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Anne Blais, 44, of Biddeford

For a week and a half, Anne Blais had avoided being close to her husband in their small three-bedroom ranch in Biddeford.

When he came down with a sore throat and tested positive for COVID-19 just after Christmas, he stayed in the master bedroom, his office and the living room. She was relegated to her office, guest bathroom and kitchen, and avoided getting sick.

But finally, on her husband’s 46th birthday last week, Blais broke down and gave him a hug.

“I was still a little scared that he had it, but hopefully enough time had passed,” she said.

From the beginning, Blais, 44, has followed the recommended precautions. She already worked remotely for a telehealth company, and David Blais, the operations manager for Maine Limousine, was able to transition to working at home. They shrank their social bubble to just a few people who were equally careful. They wore masks and got vaccinated as soon as they could.

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“It felt like it was always going to be something that someone else had. Nothing close to us had happened yet,” she said. “I didn’t think it was going to affect us. I know that sounds selfish, but after a year and a half of not catching it, we thought we made it through.”

Blais got a booster shot before the holidays. Her husband planned to get his booster, too, but decided to wait until after Christmas in case he experienced side effects, as he did after his first two doses.

On Christmas Eve, the couple attended a small family gathering at her mother’s house. Everyone there, including her 9-year-old nephew, had been vaccinated. They later found out her nephew was exposed to the virus at day care. Blais said her husband, sister, nephew and a close friend all tested positive for COVID-19.

David Blais was the only adult to be hit hard with symptoms. It started with a sore throat and soon it was painful to swallow. He was exhausted, congested and eventually became dehydrated. A few days in, she had to drop her husband off at the emergency room to treat his dehydration and get anti-inflammatory medications. She waited at home by her phone because she couldn’t stay with him.

She never felt sick and tested negative on one test, but finding more home tests seemed impossible. She believes the booster shot was a “very, very good thing” and made all the difference.

For the past two weeks, Blais has acted as if she was positive, just in case. She used Instacart to get groceries, and friends dropped off soup, a frittata and other items. David Blais’ mother left a cake on their doorstop for his birthday.

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“The amount of people saying, ‘How can I help?’ ‘Let me do stuff for you’ was amazing,’ ” she said. “I feel quite blessed that people love us.”

— Gillian Graham

Monica Cloutier, 26, is a nurse in the intensive care unit at Central Maine Medical Center. She’s seen colleagues quit their jobs because of pandemic burnout and doesn’t want to get sick and put more stress on the rest of the staff. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Monica Cloutier, 26, of Oxford

Monica Cloutier worries that the current wave of COVID-19 infections sweeping through Maine – fueled by the omicron variant – will convince people to give up.

Cloutier, an intensive care unit nurse, has dealt with the sickness and death wrought by the pandemic far more directly than most of us. And she is not giving up.

“I know it’s definitely hitting home a lot more these days, spreading like wildfire. I think we all know someone who has had it now,” said Cloutier, 26, who works at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. “I don’t want people to get complacent and say, ‘Well, I’m going to get it anyway so what’s the point?’ I don’t want people to lose sight of what we can still do to mitigate this, even though it’s spreading so rapidly.”

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Cloutier has seen first-hand what COVID can do. She spends her 12-hour shifts caring for patients who are “incredibly sick” and can’t be left alone. Many can’t breathe on their own.

She worries what might happen if she gets COVID herself. Her department is already stretched so thin that nurses are called to pick up extra shifts nearly every day. She’s seen colleagues who’ve left their jobs at the hospital because of pandemic burnout.

“It’s truly emotionally and physically exhausting, and heartbreaking. We really feel defeated all the time,” said Cloutier. “I’ve seen a lot of really amazing nurses leave because they are just tired of seeing so much heartbreak day in and day out.”

Cloutier spends a lot of time outside of work trying to be safe so she doesn’t have to miss shifts and leave the ICU stretched even thinner. She’s had the vaccine and a booster. If she goes anywhere, she wears a mask and she tries to hang out only with people who are vaccinated.

In early January, her husband tested positive for COVID-19, even though he was vaccinated. His symptoms were mild, but Cloutier immediately set up a quarantine in their house – they lived in different areas and she’d leave food for him on the stairs.

She’s had other family and friends contract the virus. Both her parents came down with it early in the pandemic, before they were vaccinated. Her mother was pretty sick, and Cloutier worried she might be hospitalized. Luckily, she wasn’t. Both her parents recovered.

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Cloutier herself has never tested positive, despite two years of working with COVID patients.

She’s had to develop some “health coping mechanisms” to clear her mind of daily stresses and worries about her patients, her colleagues and her own health.

“There seems to be an enormous number of health care workers sick right now. It’s popping up all around me,” said Cloutier. “I try not to think about it. I just try to do everything I can to mitigate the risk. If I had to be out of work, that would be one less ICU nurse, and we already don’t have a lot.”

— Ray Routhier

Zack Chase seen through the closed front door of his Biddeford home. Chase wasn’t surprised when his COVID-19 test came back positive Thursday morning. He woke up with a tickle in his throat and a little bit of congestion. Normally, he would have written it off as a head cold, but since his wife, Haley, had also just tested positive, he knew it was likely. Chase, like many others, feels lucky that he and his family have so far been largely unscathed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Zack Chase, 31, of Biddeford

Zack Chase wasn’t surprised when his COVID-19 test came back positive Thursday morning. 

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He woke up with a tickle in his throat and a little bit of congestion.

Normally, he would have written it off as a head cold, but since his wife, Haley, had also just tested positive, he knew it was likely. 

Chase, 31, is an athletic trainer at Momentum Performance and Wellness, and his wife is a teacher, so between their jobs and gathering for the holidays, they could have picked it up anywhere, he said.

Chase said he was disappointed to have the virus, but with his mild symptoms he wasn’t too put out. He just didn’t want to miss work. 

He’d be able to work through a cold, he said, but coronavirus will require him to be away from his job for longer while he quarantines. 

“I want to be at work, to be a helpful employee,” he said. “For the most part, I’m a little bummed and disappointed, but I know how important it is to isolate and quarantine.”

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Chase won’t use his time off idly, though.

He plans to take some time to rest, but said there are also opportunities to attend webinars that will improve his knowledge base for work.

“I want to be as helpful as I can,” he said. “I’m trying to do anything I can to make the best use of my time, not just sit here and do nothing.”

Chase, who lives in Biddeford, is vaccinated and received his booster shot, which he believes is why his symptoms, at least to start, have been so mild.

Chase has been fortunate.

The coronavirus has had an impact on everybody, bringing uncertainty, stress and concern. Spending time with others can be challenging. Stores and restaurants have had to close, and supply chains have been disrupted, but Chase, like many others, feels lucky to say that, so far, he and his family have been largely unscathed.

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He’s been employed throughout the pandemic, switched jobs last summer, and hasn’t really been hurt financially. The pandemic also hasn’t made his job much harder – it’s just meant more sanitizing and a little more distancing, but he said there generally aren’t a lot of people working on site at any given time, and they’ve been able to avoid outbreaks so far.

His wife has also been able to continue working.

Chase has known people who had the virus, but they’ve all recovered.

The largest impact, he said, has been the social component. They used to have large gatherings with his wife’s family or with friends. If those happen at all now, they’re a lot smaller.

“I’m really lucky to be able to say that,” he said.

He’s hopeful that the omicron variant, which is much more contagious but generally causes milder symptoms, will give people more immunity and help move us out of the pandemic.

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But he’s not ready to throw away his masks just yet.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m getting boosted again six months from now,” he said.

— Hannah LaClaire

Heidi Asselin, 40, of Auburn contracted COVID in November and has since recovered, but is still dealing with the emotional repercussions. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Heidi Asselin, 40, of Auburn

Sitting in the stands at the Lewiston Auburn YMCA last weekend, watching her daughter compete in a swim meet, Heidi Asselin felt like she was in a petri dish. 

She was boxed in on all sides, with the people next to her touching her arms, the person behind her pressing their knees into her back. 

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Everyone was masked, but Asselin couldn’t shake the thought that any one of them could make her sick. 

She and her family had COVID-19 in November, and though vaccinated, she knows the window of post-COVID protection is closing.

She was exposed again recently, she said, and felt helpless.

It feels like Russian roulette,” she said. “You just don’t know.” 

Living with diabetes, Asselin, 40, knew early on that her risk of serious illness was higher, and when the virus first started ramping up in 2020, she was terrified. She even started planning her funeral.

She worried constantly that if she contracted COVID-19, she would get sick and die, leaving her three children without their mother. 

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When she got the vaccine, Asselin felt protected, like there was a shield between her and the virus.

But then in November, despite her precautions, she and her entire family caught COVID from someone whom Asselin said was unvaccinated. 

She was lucky. She and her family recovered without incident or serious illness, but two months later, the emotional turmoil remains.

Her 6-year-old daughter Celia, who has always been a healthy child, has been sick every two weeks with a different virus since November, and Asselin fears COVID-19 has wrecked her young daughter’s immune system.

Just a few weeks ago, she took Celia to the emergency room after she complained of a stomach ache so painful she was on the floor. It was the second time she had complained of intense stomach pains.

They sat in the waiting room for seven hours, watching as nurses took vitals or gave COVID tests, even a neurological assessment, before they ultimately left at 2 a.m. without seeing a doctor.

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She doesn’t blame the health care professionals; she knows they’re just doing their jobs. 

But it’s hard, she said, knowing that her daughter can’t be seen because there are too many people, most unvaccinated, in the hospital being treated for COVID-19.

“There’s been a sense of selfishness throughout the pandemic,” she said, with people not acting out of concern for those in their communities who might be vulnerable.

Life pre-pandemic feels like a distant memory. 

A busy mom of three, she used to go to Walmart and just shop around, she said. She doesn’t do that anymore, preferring to shop at her neighborhood market, where she knows she’s more likely to be the only customer there. If she does need to go to Walmart, it’s at 10 p.m. when the store will be empty. 

They used to go out to eat, sometimes at the 99 Restaurant, but most often at Lotus Restaurant for its Chinese buffet, which her kids would go crazy for. But all that stopped suddenly two years ago, and while Chinese takeout is still an option, and still their go-to if they’re not eating at home, it’s not the same, Asselin said. 

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Her mother has cancer, so they’ve had to spend less time together to protect her.

Asselin is looking forward to the day her children can have a sleepover at Grandma’s house and have the relationship with their grandparents that kids should have.

You can’t do life the way that you used to or that you want to,” she said. “There’s no part of our lives that COVID hasn’t affected.”

— Hannah LaClaire

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