How bad is COVID in Maine? It’s hard to tell.

Our daily count of confirmed cases was above 1,500 as of Wednesday, but as Dr. Nirav Shah explained, that is not an accurate picture of how many people are getting sick.

A man walks on Oak Street in Portland, passing a flyer for MaineHealth’s Community Vaccination Clinic on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The number of cases that can be reported is limited by the ability of the state lab to process the positive test results that come in. Shah said that the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, of which he’s the director, is working through a backlog of 46,000 positive test results.

The case number will also not include most of the people who were diagnosed at home with self-administered instant tests, or those who overcame mild illness without seeking medical attention.

If not cases, then what is the best way to track the impact of the virus?

The number of COVID patients admitted to the state’s hospitals is helpful, since serious illness and death are the outcomes about which people are rightly most concerned. As of Wednesday, 411 Mainers were hospitalized for COVID, with 102 in critical care units and 53 on ventilators.

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Overall, those numbers represent a near-record number of hospitalizations, but a slight decline in intensive care admissions and ventilator use suggests we could be seeing a drop in the most serious cases.

But as Shah pointed out, hospitalizations can tell you how many people were infected at an earlier date, not what’s happening now. The omicron variant spreads so quickly that two-week-old data are ancient history.

There is another problem with using hospital admissions to track the virus. In other parts of the country, hospitalizations leveled out because hospitals were full and didn’t have room for more patients; meanwhile, the pandemic raged on.

Shah said the state has started monitoring wastewater, and that could provide a better picture of where the virus is most prevalent in time to allow state public health officials to direct resources where the need is greatest. But the information is not currently posted on the Maine CDC’s website.

So what is the best way Mainers should respond to the pandemic? Our best tools remain common sense and compassion for others.

The vaccines in use for just over a year are wildly effective. Almost 4 billion people are fully vaccinated worldwide, and Maine is among the most vaccinated states in the country. That shows up in our rate of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which is among the lowest in the nation.

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The protection they provide isn’t perfect, but unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID. Getting the vaccine and booster shots is still the single best way to protect your health and the health of the people around you.

The second most important step is to wear a mask when out in public, especially indoors. The cities of Portland and South Portland and the town of Brunswick should be applauded for passing mask requirements to protect their residents. A statewide mandate should also be considered while the highly transmissible virus is spreading in virtually every community.

The federal government is finally making high-quality N95 masks available for free and they will be distributed at pharmacies nationwide. People should not wait, however, and if they can’t find high-quality masks for sale where they live, they should double mask, using a cloth mask over a paper surgical mask for better protection.

And we all need to remember that we are still all in this together. Small sacrifices made by many people add up to a protective shield for the entire community. A few selfish acts, however, can do tremendous harm.

How bad is COVID in Maine? Don’t look at the numbers. It’s bad enough that we should not let up.


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