Sep. 16—Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, which serves as the major treatment center for the northern and eastern half of the state, is treating a record number of COVID-19 inpatients, while the trends for hospitals in southern and central Maine varied over the past week.
EMMC was caring for 58 coronavirus patients as of Thursday morning, breaking its own record of 55 set Dec. 31 at the height of the winter surge, making it the highest number recorded at a Maine hospital on a single day. As recently as mid-July, EMMC had several days without any COVID-19 inpatients at all.
EMMC's parent entity, Northern Light Health, also set a record with 80 COVID-19 inpatients across its 10 member hospitals, shattering the previous high mark of 74, also set Dec. 31. The past week was EMMC's second worst, with an average burden of 48 coronavirus patients a day, slightly lower than the 51.9 seen at the opening of the year.
"We're seeing significant numbers of individuals unfortunately who are very, very sick," said Dr. James Jarvis, senior vice president at EMMC and Northern Light's physician incident commander. "They are trending more rural, they're younger, and the overwhelming majority are unvaccinated."
Across Maine, 194 people were hospitalized Thursday with COVID-19. Seventy were in critical care units, and 38 were connected to ventilators to assist with breathing. All three numbers are near records, some set earlier this week.
"Right now for us it's a juggling game, trying to look at individuals who no longer need to be at a (highest level of) care facility and trying to find them a bed at one of our other hospitals," Jarvis said. "The single best way for you to protect yourself, your family and your community and to keep hospital beds open for the next person who has a heart attack or a car accident is to get vaccinated."
Some major hospitals in southern, central and midcoast Maine continued to see COVID-19 inpatient levels tick upward, while others saw numbers ease slightly, but all continue to face burdens many times higher than in the early summer, before the highly contagious delta variant of the disease swept over Maine.
The state's largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, had 32 hospitalized COVID-19 patients Thursday, its highest level in many months but well below the peak of 45 on Jan. 19. Its overall burden for the week ending Thursday — an average of 28.3 inpatients treated on a given day — was up slightly from last week's 23 per day but remained well shy of the mid-January peak of 40.9.
Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston saw its COVID-19 inpatient burden increase from 11 per day last week to 11.8 per day for the six days ending Wednesday. Portland's Mercy Hospital also saw an increase from 5.7 to 6.4 per day.
The burden at Southern Maine Health Care Medical Center in Biddeford eased slightly, from an average 13.6 COVID-19 inpatients a day last week to 11.1 for the week ending Thursday. Midcoast Hospital in Brunswick saw a similar decline, going from 7.6 to 6.1 such inpatients per day. For Augusta's MaineGeneral the figures were 10 and 9.7.
The geography of the pandemic is generally mirroring vaccination levels, noted Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer for MaineHealth, the state's largest hospital network and parent of Maine Med, SMHC and Midcoast Hospital.
"This is still predominantly a disease of the unvaccinated, and we have much higher vaccination rates in Cumberland County than in some other counties of the state," Boomsma said. "In fact many of the COVID ICU patients at Maine Med are from outside of the Portland area."
MaineHealth reported Thursday that 16 of its 17 of COVID-19 patients in intensive care were not fully vaccinated, as were 9 of the 10 on ventilators. Overall, 34 of the 50 COVID-19 inpatients at MaineHealth are unvaccinated. Northern Light was unable to provide such breakdowns for its hospitals Thursday afternoon.
Boomsma said her member hospitals are holding their own, but there was trepidation about being at such high occupancy levels heading into the fall and winter, when people are indoors and humidity levels drop, allowing the airborne moisture particles that the coronavirus rides on to remain suspended longer. Compounding the situation are the closures of several long-term care facilities and staffing shortages at most others, which have left large numbers of patients in hospital beds who would normally have been transferred for rehabilitation stays or nursing care.
"We have 100 patients right now at Maine Med who need to go to skilled nursing facilities or rehab, but there is no room for them," she said. "This and COVID and our own workforce shortages are creating a potential perfect storm for us in terms of getting close to the limit of our capacity."
The situation eased slightly during the week at Waldo Memorial in Belfast, located in what has been the worst-affected county in the state. The average daily COVID-19 burden there fell to 7.7 from 9.6 last week and 10.4 the week before that, which was the hospital's worst week of the pandemic. But the burden continued to rise at other small hospitals including A.R. Gould in Presque Isle, Maine Coast in Ellsworth, York Hospital and Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield.
Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator in that they typically occur one to three weeks after a person is exposed to the disease, but unlike other metrics, it is not dependent on who and how many people were tested. They can end in three ways: recovery, death, or transfer to another facility.