As COVID continues to spread in Maine, severe cases and deaths are far less common

·4 min read

Jul. 22—While the latest highly transmissible variant is driving up the number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Maine, far fewer patients are becoming seriously ill and dying compared to earlier stages of the pandemic.

Maine has gone nearly two weeks without reporting a COVID-19-related death, something that had not happened since March 2021. On Friday, the state also reported that there were no hospitalized COVID patients on ventilators for a fourth consecutive day. Until this week, it had been 20 months since there were no Maine patients ill enough to need a ventilator, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts say this is because omicron BA.5 and related subvariants are less severe than previous strains such as delta, and because the tools available to manage COVID — including vaccines and anti-viral treatments — are working.

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, said in an interview Friday that the lack of deaths and having zero patients on ventilators is "not a fluke." Maine is following national trends showing a reduction in severity of COVID-19, he said.

Nationally, around 10 percent of hospitalized COVID patients are in ICUs. Over the past year and a half that number had generally hovered closer to 25 percent.

"The variants driving the current uptick are not thought to be significantly more severe than the (omicron) variants we were contending with in January," Shah said. He said the "higher vaccination rates across the country and in Maine, greater availability of therapeutics, the continued availability of monoclonal antibodies" has led to a disease that is more manageable in 2022 than it was in 2020, before vaccines became widely available.

Maine continues to report an average of about 200 new cases a day. The numbers are far higher than the state experienced during the past two summer, and they do not include infections confirmed with at-home tests.

A total of 143 hospitalized patients in Maine had the virus as of Friday morning, including 24 in critical care, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. The overall number is up 25 percent over the past week.

However, while the number of hospitalizations has been on the rise in recent weeks, many hospitalizations are coincidental — attributed to people who were hospitalized for other reasons and happen to have COVID rather than people hospitalized because of COVID.

In hospitals operated by MaineHealth, the state's largest hospital network, around two-thirds of patients with COVID are coincidentally positive and one-third were admitted because of COVID, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, former Maine CDC director and current chief health improvement officer at Maine Health.

There were 60 COVID-positive patients in MaineHealth hospitals on Friday morning, but only 18 were admitted because of COVID; the other 42 were coincidental.

The 42 include people who tested positive upon admission — everyone must test before being admitted to the hospital — or people who contracted it in the hospital. Mills said more people are contracting the virus in hospitals now that visitors are allowed.

Similarly, most patients with COVID in MaineHealth intensive care units are in the ICU because of non-COVID ailments, Mills said. There were six patients in the ICU with COVID as of Friday morning, but only two were there because of COVID. This means only two of 60 COVID-positive patients — 3 percent — were sick enough to require ICU care because of the virus. In December, during the height of delta infections, around 20 percent of MaineHealth COVID patients were in the ICU or on ventilators.

The smaller percentage of COVID patients requiring intensive care is partially because the variant currently circulating, BA.5, is less severe than previous strains. But Mills said that the efficacy of COVID prevention measures including vaccines, masking, testing, treatment and social distancing, is also a contributor.

"All those COVID mitigation measures are making this surge less serious," said Mills. "Living safely with COVID is all about using those prevention tools."

Mills agreed with Shah that the relatively small number of people requiring hospitalization or intensive care during this surge shows that COVID prevention tools are working.

Maine also reported 270 new cases Thursday, and the seven-day average is now 197 cases per day. Infections confirmed with at-home tests are not included in the official counts.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 274,285 cases and 2,464 deaths.