Gov. Mills to send 169 more National Guard members to help Maine's hospitals

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Jan. 11—Gov. Janet Mills is sending more Maine Army National Guard members to help Maine's hospitals as they strain with a surge of patients and staffing shortages during the omicron variant wave.

Up to 169 additional Guard members will be deployed to non-clinical support roles at health care facilities across the state, the second time Mills has activated the Guard to assist hospitals during the pandemic. The Guard will begin their work next week and continue through the end of February.

"The Guard members will help hospitals maintain capacity by freeing up clinical staff to focus on patient care. Their assistance will also open additional beds at nursing facilities, in swing bed units, and at other 'decompression sites' that accept patients discharged from hospitals," a Mills' office said in a news release. Details on where the Guard members will be going will be forthcoming.

"I wish we did not have to take this step, but the rise in hospitalizations — caused primarily by those who are not vaccinated — is stretching the capacity of our health care system thin, jeopardizing care for Maine people, and putting increased strain on our already exhausted health care workers," Mills said in a statement.

"We are in the midst of the most difficult time of the entire pandemic for hospitals," said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. "We are stretched to our bed capacity limits, all the while more and more of our employees are out due to COVID exposures. The stress on our caregivers can't be overstated. The additional help from the Guard couldn't come at a better time."

The announcement Tuesday came one month after Mills announced the deployment of 38 Guard members to 10 health care centers across the state to help increase capacity. Those members are among more than 200 National Guard members who are already deployed in a variety of support roles, such as conducting inventory and delivery of personal protective equipment supplies, staffing COVID-19 testing centers and vaccine clinics and helping at long-term care facilities.

While hospitalizations rose to a record number of patients this week, hospitals also are struggling with large numbers of staff absences because of COVID infections and exposures.

St. Mary's Regional Medical Center in Lewiston is in a "crisis staffing" mode and is asking that in some certain limited circumstances COVID-19 positive employees will be working at the hospital.

"In accordance with CDC guidelines — and only as absolutely necessary — St. Mary's Health System is allowing some of our employees who have had exposure to, have tested positive for, or are under investigation for COVID-19 to work in our COVID-positive units. The employees who meet these criteria and are willing to work will only be asked to do so when a unit has exhausted all other options for filling shifts," the hospital said in a statement.

MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals, said in a statement that it has not reached a crisis level of staffing, and would not be asking COVID-19 positive employees to report to work. MaineHealth has postponed elective surgeries, among other measures, in an attempt to preserve capacity during the delta wave in the fall and now as the omicron variant spreads throughout the state.

The Mills administration also announced Tuesday that the Biden administration has approved a request for federal COVID-19 Surge Response Teams consisting of nurses and pharmacists, with three team members going to MaineHealth and four to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. The surge team clinicians, who began arriving Monday and will stay through Jan. 27, are administering COVID-19 vaccines, freeing up Maine health care workers to provide patient care. Eight federal ambulance crews also are currently supporting hospitals and staying through Jan. 26.

The overall number of patients in Maine hospitals declined slightly on Tuesday but remained at a near-record level. The highly contagious omicron variant is now believed to be the dominant strain statewide and the cause of the vast majority of new infections and illnesses.

The number of patients in Maine's hospitals with COVID-19 declined from 403 on Monday — a pandemic record — to 395 on Tuesday. Intensive care patients also declined, from 107 on Monday to 105 on Tuesday, although the number of patients needing ventilators increased from 57 on Monday to 60 on Tuesday.

ICU utilization in the state has stayed relatively steady as hospitalizations have soared, an indication that omicron is less severe than delta and earlier strains, according to some public health experts. Maine's ICU utilization has been at about 110 for the past few weeks.

Nationally, nearly 146,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday, nearly double two weeks ago and also surpassing the pandemic peak of of 142,000 in January 2021, according to federal data.

Also on Tuesday, Maine reported 20 more COVID-19 deaths and 1,779 additional confirmed cases of the virus.

It is the first update on new cases since last week because positive tests are not reviewed and confirmed on weekends. Daily case counts are no longer a reliable snapshot of what is happening with COVID-19 because of the increase in people who never get tested or who use at-home tests that are not reported to the state, as well as a large backlog in positive test reports submitted to the state.

A small portion of the new cases reported Tuesday are new positive tests and most were submitted to the state last month, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention's website. Also, with tests hard to come by, more people who are sick with COVID-19 are not getting tested.

As a result, the daily case data is a significant undercount of the number of cases actually circulating in Maine. Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 155,155 cases of COVID-19, and 1,623 deaths.

Meanwhile, as more people become hospitalized with COVID-19, treatments are in short supply. With the omicron variant, two of the three monoclonal antibody treatments used in Maine are not effective, and have been discontinued.

Maine's health care system this week only has about 144 doses of the remaining monoclonal antibody drug that is effective against omicron, sotrovimab, not nearly enough to treat those in need.

"Eventually we will be in a very good place where we have excellent supplies, but unfortunately not in time for this surge," said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, a former Maine CDC director and currently the chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, the state's largest hospital network. "If somebody tests positive for COVID and is at high risk for hospitalization, providers are in a real bind."

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of another treatment, an antiviral pill called Paxlovid, that also appears effective at fighting omicron cases. But its supplies also have been severely depleted in Maine and nationally. Mills said the state had received fewer than 300 doses of the Pfizer-made drug last week and was not expecting another shipment for several weeks.

The Maine CDC also told health providers Friday that the more contagious omicron was now the dominant strain in Maine. It said estimates from lab samples in the state suggest that the variant now accounts for 70 to 90 percent of COVID-19 cases in the state.

According to the latest official genomic sequencing report, which was released on Tuesday, 27.7 percent of cases sampled by The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor tested positive for omicron, from Dec. 26-Jan.1. But the most recent sequencing report is 10 days old, and public health officials have said omicron is much more prevalent now.

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