As hospitals, schools and businesses struggle with staff shortages from people out with COVID-19, hospitalizations remain high across Maine.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported Saturday another five people have died from COVID-19, bringing the total death toll in Maine since the pandemic began to 1,698.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across Maine is 429, the state reported Saturday. That’s near a record high of 436 people hospitalized on Jan. 13, and more than double what the number was a year ago. The state also reported 974 new cases on Saturday.

The current number of patients, combined with staff shortages, is overwhelming hospitals to the point that National Guard troops have been deployed to hospitals and medical facilities across Maine to help. Of those 429 inpatients, 101 were in critical care units, and 55 remained on ventilators, the state reported.

With more and more people testing positive and cases of the highly contagious omicron variant spreading quickly, the number of critically ill patients has remained flat. That indicates, doctors have said, that omicron generally results in less serious sickness among those who are fully vaccinated and boosted. The majority of very sick people hospitalized are those who have not been vaccinated, experts have said.

The Maine CDC on Saturday added another 1,207 confirmed cases, bringing the total count since the pandemic began to 166,898. However, that number does not reflect the true picture of how many people have caught the virus because so many people are taking home tests, which often are not reported.

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Also, the state has been slammed with so many positive tests a day it cannot keep up. In the past two weeks there have been more than 2,000 positive tests each day, compared to the fall, when there were 400 to 600 positive cases a day.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said last week that daily case counts are an underestimate of the true number. “At this point in the pandemic, case counts are not the metric of the moment,” he said. “The concept of a case count is a function of how many lab results our staff can process in any given day.” Hospitalizations have become the more reliable metric during the omicron wave, experts say, but they are a lagging indicator of community spread.

Because of how quickly omicron is spreading, and because it’s leading to so many breakthrough cases, Shah warned “we may all have a date with it.”

It’s unclear if the surge of positive tests in Maine has peaked or is still rising. Some parts of the country where omicron spread first are seeing cases plateau or even decline, but experts predict the wave will continue for several more weeks at least. Data from positive test rates and the high number of tests suggests the omicron wave is still moving through Maine.

With the surge and the CDC recommending everyone – vaccinated or not – wear a snug-fitting mask over the mouth and nose to prevent the spread of omicron, a growing number of southern Maine towns and cities have passed mask mandates for indoor, public spaces. Those communities include Portland, Bath, Brunswick, Freeport and, beginning on Monday, South Portland.

The state, however,  has no plans to reinstitute a mask mandate, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew has said. Vaccinations remain the best way for residents to protect themselves, Lambrew said.

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