The number of Mainers in critical care beds with COVID-19 has fallen to its lowest point in two and a half months, a promising sign that the omicron wave is subsiding.

Cases continue to climb in schools, however, and state officials also reported 18 additional deaths on Thursday as the average number of daily deaths across the United States has risen to its highest level in nearly a year.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said he’s encouraged by recent downward trends in hospitalizations, as well as virus transmission. But he cautioned that it’s still too early to say definitively that omicron is waning.

“What we’re looking for is continuation of the data,” he said during Wednesday’s media briefing. “All the signs are pointing in the right direction.”

The state reported 1,402 new cases on Thursday, although the official daily case count no longer reflects a current picture of transmission because the state is still working through a backlog of positive tests that have flooded in over the last few weeks, and also because home test results don’t need to be shared.

However, the number of raw positive test results received by the CDC over the last week has averaged about 1,600 per day, which is down from 2,500 positive results daily just one week earlier. Additionally, the positivity rate – or the percentage of all tests that come back positive – has fallen from 21.2 percent to 13.1 percent in a week. And wastewater testing, which is increasingly being used to track community level transmission, is showing sharp declines as well.


One area where cases are still rising is in schools. According to data updated Thursday by the Maine Department of Education, there have been 12,967 cases in K-12 schools over the last 30 days, and 44 schools have experienced outbreaks, which means at least 15 percent of staff and students have been out sick at one time.

Last week at this time, there were 11,526 cases and 37 outbreaks reported over the preceding 30-day period.

Overall hospitalizations increased slightly on Thursday to 346 COVID-19 patients, but the total has been decreasing steadily since peaking at 436 nearly three weeks ago. Of those currently hospitalized, 80 are in critical care, the lowest total since Nov. 17, the CDC said. The number of people on ventilators, 31, hasn’t been this low since Nov. 12.

Major medical centers across the state are still reporting high numbers of inpatients, but they are down from the peaks set during the worst of the omicron surge last month.

The critically ill continued to be overwhelmingly unvaccinated. The state’s largest hospital network, MaineHealth, reported that 12 of the 15 COVID-19 patients on ventilators at its 10 member hospitals Thursday – or 80 percent – were not fully vaccinated. Not fully vaccinated people also account for 72 percent of the 43 COVID-19 patients in intensive care across MaineHealth’s system.

At Northern Light Health hospitals, 12 of 18 patients currently in critical care are not vaccinated.


A man crosses Commercial Street in Portland on Tuesday afternoon. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Research has shown that individuals who are fully vaccinated and have gotten booster shots are far less likely to develop serious symptoms from the omicron variant.

Hospitalizations have been declining across the country as well, although many southern and mountain states are still seeing increases. The average number of patients in the hospital this week is 127,329, according to the U.S. CDC. That’s down 12 percent from 144,632 patients on average two weeks ago.

Shah said it’s important to remember that while things are improving, the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 remains high, and many hospitals are still receiving help from Maine Army National Guard members and federal crews to deal with the influx.


Additionally, the number of people dying from COVID-19 has yet to come down. Maine has added 39 deaths just this week, bringing the pandemic total to 1,777. Roughly 87 percent of the deaths have been individuals 60 or older. Across the country, deaths are averaging 2,369 every day, roughly double the daily average from late December, according to the U.S. CDC.

The rapid spread of the omicron variant in Maine has forced health officials to alter their practices in recent weeks. Shah announced Wednesday that his agency will stop contact tracing on individuals who test positive because it’s no longer effective. In addition to that change, which is effective Tuesday, the CDC soon will move to an automated system of case investigation, the process by which workers define a new COVID-19 case. That change is being made to help alleviate a backlog of 58,000 positive tests.


But Shah said Wednesday that the decision to eliminate contact tracing was not made with the backlog in mind.

“Even if we had zero backlog, we would still be making this change,” he said, adding that other states have done the same thing. Essentially, Shah said, by the time contact tracers can reach people, individuals who have tested positive with the omicron variant likely have already spread the virus.

Shah did say that people who test positive should still notify their own close contacts, and that people who have been exposed to a positive case should still quarantine. Contact tracing will still be done in some settings, such as long-term care facilities, hospitals and jails.

Vaccinations, meanwhile, have slowed in Maine in recent weeks, but the state is still administering more than 2,300 doses a day on average over the last seven days. Overall, 977,777 individuals are considered fully vaccinated, representing 72.7 percent of residents, and 560,593, or 41.7 percent, have gotten boosters.

Federal officials are expected to decide this month whether to approve Pfizer’s low-dose vaccines for children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, the only group not yet eligible. In Maine, there are more than 60,000 children in that category.

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this story. 

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