Kate Murrane, a public health nurse with the City of Portland, gives a Pfizer bivalent COVID-19 booster vaccination to Shawn Ruarke at the Portland Public Health Clinic on Forest Avenue in Portland on Friday. The city will host another clinic where people can get a COVID-19 booster and/or a flu shot at City Hall on Wednesday from 1-4 p.m. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been steadily increasing in Maine, going from 150 in late August to 221 on Friday, a 47 percent increase. But public health experts are not issuing the same type of dire warnings as during last year’s winter surge.

“I wouldn’t say it’s alarming,” Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals, said in an interview on Friday. “But it’s also not unexpected.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a series of tweets on Wednesday that COVID-19 hospitalizations are “going up in part because all hospitalizations are going up, and also because COVID is starting to increase.”

Shah said “more people are in the hospital to begin with. And on top of that, more people are getting COVID and landing in the hospital.”

The Maine CDC does not officially keep track of those who are hospitalized for COVID-19 compared with those who are hospitalized for some other reason and coincidentally have COVID-19, or catch it while they are in the hospital. But Mills said the proportion of people who coincidentally have COVID-19 and are in the hospital is higher than last winter.

While the increased hospitalizations are concerning, one reason they are not causing alarm among health officials is that the tools to fight the pandemic are better, with increased vaccinations and much easier access to treatments.


That is borne out in another statistic showing a marked decrease in the percentage of COVID-19 patients in intensive care compared to last winter. Currently, 37 of the 221 COVID-19 patients are in intensive care, or about 17 percent of the total. In December 2021 and January 2022, 25 percent to 35 percent of all hospitalized COVID-19 patients were in ICU wings.

Mills said improved treatments and vaccination rates since last winter – including booster shots – are largely why fewer COVID-19 patients are in intensive care.

“What we did not have at that time that we do have now is easy access to outpatient treatments,” Mills said.

Last fall, Maine experienced a jump in hospitalizations from the delta variant, followed by the omicron surge in the winter.

However, one reason hospitalizations continue to be a problem – even if the situation is not as acute as last winter – is that many seniors, especially in rural Maine, put off getting tested for COVID-19 until several days after they’ve become ill, Mills said.

Paxlovid, the anti-viral oral medication that is 90 percent effective at preventing those infected with COVID-19 from hospitalization, is ineffective after a patient has had symptoms for five days. Treatment with monoclonal antibodies – which patients receive as an infusion – is only effective the first seven days after the onset of symptoms.


“We are seeing quite a few older people in the hospital who are quite ill, who did not get Paxlovid,” Mills said. “They tend to think they’ve just had a bad cold and think they are OK and wait longer than five days to get tested. They are not realizing that early testing and early treatment is really important, especially if you are older.”

While the state’s overall hospitalization rate has increased in recent weeks, MaineHealth hospitals have experienced a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations, from 100 on Monday to 71 on Friday.

Karen Cashman, spokeswoman for Northern Light Health, the health care system that operates Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, said COVID-19 hospitalizations were fairly stable this week, reporting 57 on Friday.

Statewide, hospitalizations jumped from 197 on Monday to 221 on Friday.

Meanwhile, the rollout of the omicron booster shot is continuing, and public health officials are strongly urging people to get their COVID-19 booster and influenza shot. Many places – including pharmacies and doctor’s offices – will give both shots during the same appointment. Forty-eight percent of Maine residents have had at least one booster shot, tied with Rhode Island as the second-highest rate of boosters given in the United States, according to the New York Times vaccine tracker. Vermont has the best rate at 53 percent boosted, while the national average is 33 percent.

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