Apr. 8—As more and more older Mainers get vaccinated against COVID-19, the average age of those hospitalized with the virus is falling even as overall hospital admissions have held steady over the last month.
The average age of COVID-19 patients statewide was 72 during the post-holiday surge in January, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In March, that dropped to 66.
In January, 182 people 70 and older were admitted to Maine hospitals with COVID-19, according to CDC data, but in March it fell to 58. Among those younger than 60, 42 were hospitalized in January and 38 in March.
"The breakout of hospitalizations by age group seems to mostly confirm what we know about the virus, which is that severe illness incidence increases with age," Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said. "So, during the surge in cases we saw a surge in hospitalizations that was concentrated in the older groups. As the surge receded, the older groups saw the sharpest declines."
Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer for MaineHealth, said that trend has been true at Maine Medical Center in Portland, the state's largest hospital. She said the post-holiday surge in hospitalizations was driven largely by people in their 70s or older, many of whom died. But in March, the combined number of people in their 70s and 80s who were hospitalized with COVID-19 at Maine Med was less than the number of people in their 60s. That's the first time that's happened during the pandemic.
The average age of COVID-19 patients at the hospital decreased from 65 in January to 58 in March.
"To me, that really demonstrates the impact of these vaccines," Boomsma said.
At MaineGeneral in Augusta, the average age of COVID-19 patients has dropped even more dramatically — from 71 in January to 59 in March, spokeswoman Joy McKenna said.
Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said he wasn't comfortable sharing patient demographic information because the numbers aren't high enough to draw conclusions. But anecdotally, he said the average age of those hospitalized is younger.
The good news, Jarvis said, is that cases aren't spreading at long-term care facilities, which contributed to many hospitalizations over the last year.
"The bad news is we're still seeing people younger getting sick, and sick enough that they need to be hospitalized," he said.
One of the main goals behind Maine's early push to vaccinate older residents first was to protect those at highest risk of death or hospitalization from COVID-19. Yet even as vaccinations have accelerated during March and now April — nearly 75 percent of Mainers over 60 have gotten at least one shot — COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maine have remained at the same level.
In the last month, the number of people hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19 has not dropped below 71 and has eclipsed 80 on six days, including Monday and Tuesday. The number of critical care patients hasn't fallen below 20, and Monday's total of 32 was the highest in nearly two months.
Other hospital officials said it's not necessarily younger people who are being hospitalized but people who have not yet been vaccinated, which is another sign that all three vaccines that have received emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are effective in keeping people from dying or from entering hospitals.
"We are not seeing a huge number of younger individuals, however, we have experienced a slight increase in our hospitalization rate over the past one to two weeks. These patients tend to fall between age 50 to late 80s, and most are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated," said Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau, an infectious disease physician at York Hospital.
Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer for Central Maine Healthcare, said he hasn't seen any significant decrease in the average age of hospitalized patients.
"While there is significant spread amongst younger persons in the community currently, likely due to the COVID variants circulating, the fact remains that older persons are at higher risk for hospitalizations, complications and death," he said.
Reports in several other states, including Connecticut, Nebraska and New Jersey, suggest their COVID-19 hospitalizations are skewing younger.
In Connecticut, where hospitalizations are rising, Yale New Haven Hospital officials said a 25 percent increase in admissions over the last two weeks is driven largely by people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, NBC Connecticut reported last week.
In Nebraska, the average age of patients hospitalized at Bryan Health in Lincoln was 61 in January, but it dropped to 51 in March, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.
And New Jersey officials told ABC news this week that variants, including the strain first detected in the United Kingdom, were contributing to a rise in cases and hospitalizations — including among younger people. Between the first and last weeks of March, there was a 31 percent and 48 percent increase, respectively, in the number of hospitalizations among the 20-29 and 40-49 age groups, according to Judy Persichilli, the state health commissioner .
The New York Times reported this week that although hospitalizations nationwide have increased only slightly in recent weeks, "There is a clear recent increase in coronavirus hospital admissions among adults under 50. But among those in the oldest age groups, who are most likely to have been vaccinated already, admissions continue to decline."
Yet even though younger people are at much lower risk of dying from COVID-19, it does happen, and those who survive can still suffer long-term health problems.
"It has been a little surprising and certainly concerning that we plateaued in February and March at a level of hospitalizations that was really similar to early fall," Boomsma said. "The fact that it didn't go down more suggested indeed that widespread community transmission is still out there."
Throughout much of last year, especially during the late spring when other states' hospitals were being overwhelmed, Maine hospitals were largely spared.
The first time Maine reached 100 hospitalizations was on Nov. 23, shortly before Thanksgiving. However, the total didn't drop below 100 again until Feb. 15, almost three months later, and topped out at 207 on Jan. 13 at the height of the post-holiday surge. Hospitalizations began to fall rapidly in late January into mid-February before leveling off.
With the recent surge in cases, there is concern that hospitalizations may creep back up, too. Hospitalizations and deaths typically follow case spikes by two or three weeks.
Increased travel, combined with loosened pandemic restrictions in many states, has driven the latest spike, experts say. The next couple months, as vaccinations continue across all age groups, could be crucial.
"Younger people always think that they are less likely to have a significant effect," Boomsma said. "I think that might be why we're seeing vaccine hesitation among some younger people. But they can become seriously ill and have long-term consequences."