The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine intensive care units dipped this week to the lowest levels in nearly a year as fewer patients are experiencing the most severe symptoms of the disease.

But the virus is continuing to evolve, with more subvariants emerging to infect even the vaccinated and those who have been infected before.

The latest versions, dubbed omicron BA.4 and BA.5 by scientists, have become the predominant strains in Maine and nationally, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed on Friday.

He said those subvariants have surged to cause the majority of new infections in just a few weeks and now make up 76 percent of the new cases of COVID in New England and 81 percent nationally. And, Shah said, the disease is likely to continue mutating, extending a pandemic that has been running its course in the U.S. for more than 2 ½ years.

“That’s a bummer, but that is what viruses do,” Shah said.

The new variants appear to be responsible for an increase in Maine’s daily case counts this week and may be keeping the overall number of hospitalized patients well above the numbers experienced during the past two summers.


The one bright spot in recent weeks has been the decline in the number of people who have gotten seriously ill from the disease. In Maine, 12 COVID patients were in hospital intensive care units on Friday, a sharp decrease from last December, when both the delta and omicron variants were surging, and Maine peaked with 133 COVID patients in ICUs.

The number of Maine ICU patients dropped to 11 on Thursday, the lowest number since July 18, 2021, when there also were 11 patients in critical care.

A total of 119 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine as of Friday morning, the CDC reported. Of the 12 patients in critical care, three were on ventilators. The overall number of patients increased from 114 on Thursday, although Maine’s overall hospitalizations have fluctuated between 110 and 130 for the past three weeks with no sustained increases or decreases.

Nationally, 4,632 COVID patients are currently in ICUs, according to federal figures. That number has been rising in recent weeks since hitting a low point of 1,820 in ICUs in mid-April.

Scientists are still studying the latest variants, Shah said, but based on the data so far, they don’t seem to cause more severe illnesses than the original omicron variant that emerged last fall. Omicron itself seemed to be less severe in most people than the delta variant that emerged last summer and spread through the fall.

However, Shah noted, the latest variants seem to spread more easily and scientists are studying them to determine the extent to which they can evade vaccinations or immunities that people develop after becoming infected with the diseases.


The state reported 300 new cases of COVID on Friday. The seven-day average of new cases increased to 216 per day from 181 a week ago. Official case counts do not include infections confirmed using at-home tests.

Along with the uptick in official case counts this week, the CDC reported that more Mainers are getting tested at clinics and pharmacies and a higher percentage of those tests are coming back positive.

There’s no way of predicting what might come next or how long the pandemic will continue, Shah said.

“COVID is going to be with us,” he said. “There’s no iron law of science that says variants have to evolve one way or another.”

The COVID case count in Maine is relatively low right now compared to other parts of the country, although there are some hot spots where BA.5 is “fueling a near-surge,” said Dr. James Jarvis, physician leader, incident command for Northern Light Health. CDC data shows cases are spreading fastest in Knox and Aroostook counties.

Most of New England also is reporting a relatively low number of COVID cases, Jarvis said. Four out of five Mainers are fully vaccinated, he said, meaning the virus’ spread is somewhat controlled and if people do get infected, it’s less likely to be a severe case.



Both Jarvis and Shah recommended that people wear masks if they are indoors, especially those over 50 years old and with an underlying health condition, and they urge those who have not gotten fully vaccinated to do so.

Jarvis said that some people have gotten the virus two or three times and those who have been re-infected recently report that their symptoms were somewhat worse than in their earlier bouts with the disease.

“This particular virus is mutating quite rapidly,” he said, and scientists are watching a new variant that has been reported in Asia that seems to be spreading rapidly.

It’s common for viruses to mutate, he said, but COVID has remained highly infectious and that means it finds more hosts in which it can mutate.

“This just seems to be happening much more quickly” than most viruses, he said. One bright spot, Jarvis said, is that most of the variants that are spreading are themselves variants of omicron and scientists are working on vaccines that would target omicron and its subvariants.

Omicron BA.5 and BA.4 have driven up cases and hospitalizations around the world, including in the United States.

Public health officials say older people with underlying conditions, as well as younger, unvaccinated people, are the most likely groups to show up in hospitals and need care. Health experts continue to urge people to get vaccinations and booster shots if they are eligible because vaccines help prevent severe symptoms.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 272,905 cases and 2,464 deaths.

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