Hospitals scramble to maintain capacity as Maine reports record 1,275 new COVID-19 cases

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Dec. 8—Maine is reporting 1,275 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday — the highest number of new cases reported in a single day — as the state's hospitals scramble to maintain capacity to keep up with record numbers of mostly unvaccinated patients.

At Maine Medical Center in Portland, hospital officials are closing six general surgery operating rooms to free them up for COVID-19 patients, and all joint replacement surgeries are now being postponed. The network had already been postponing a smaller number of elective procedures to cope with the surge.

"We're running out of straws," said Dr. Andrew Mueller, CEO of MaineHealth, the parent entity of Maine Med. "There's not a lot of great options left."

Gov. Janet Mills is hosting a news conference today with Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's health and human services commissioner and Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, at 2 p.m. to discuss what the state is doing to expand hospital capacity in light of the COVID-19 surge.

Hospitalizations continue to break records, with a record high 379 people hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday, including 117 in intensive care and 60 on a ventilator.

Mueller said they have "great concerns" about the pandemic this winter, and expect to see more surges related to holiday gatherings.

"We don't think we've seen the full brunt of this surge, and probably won't for two to three weeks," Mueller said.

Dr. Joel Botler, chief medical officer at Maine Med, said postponements have grown from 30 percent of elective surgeries — about 1,500 surgeries delayed — to 50 percent, or 2,000 surgeries postponed, as unvaccinated COVID-19 patients overwhelm hospitals.

Botler said while the surgeries may be classified as "elective" and can be delayed temporarily, they are surgeries that are needed.

"These surgeries are joint replacements, like hip and knee replacements, spinal surgery," Botler said. "These are all patients in a lot of pain. These are people who need surgeries done, so they can do their work and activities of daily living."

By delaying surgeries and closing operating rooms for COVID-19 patients, Botler said Maine Med can increase its capacity by 8-12 intensive care patients, depending on that day's staffing levels. Botler said the hospital on Monday cared for 50 COVID-19 patients, including 16 in intensive care, and the hospital reached capacity for that day.

Dr. Christine Hein, a Maine Med emergency department physician, said patients are waiting in hallways and waiting rooms to wait for beds to open up.

"This is absolutely unprecedented times we are experiencing right now," Hein said.

MaineHealth officials pleaded with those who are still unvaccinated to get their shots, which will help alleviate conditions at the hospital, and protect yourself, family and friends.

Mueller said while some vaccinated patients are hospitalized, it's those who are unvaccinated who are "very sick, here for an enormous amount of time" and take up a "tremendous amount of resources."

"When we step back and look at those patients, 90 plus percent (of ICU patients) are unvaccinated," Mueller said. "Those who are vaccinated have significantly less risk of severe disease."

Since the pandemic began, Maine has reported 125,373 cases of COVID-19, and 1,356 deaths. The high numbers on Wednesday are likely to be partly a reflection of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention "catching up" from cases from previous days, as often there's a lag in reporting cases from the weekend, when the agency does not report new numbers. For instance, Tuesday's reported three-day total of about 325 cases per day was significantly lower than the daily numbers reported last week, when the Maine CDC was reporting about 800 to 900 cases per day.

Meanwhile, scientists are studying a new coronavirus variant, omicron, that may be more contagious than the delta variant, which is currently the most widespread in the United States. But it's unknown whether omicron causes more- or less-severe cases, on average, than delta. So far, no omicron cases have been detected in Maine, but it has been detected in at least 19 states.

Early indications are that omicron might cause milder cases than the delta variant, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's chief medical officer, said in a media briefing Tuesday.

"It might be, and I underscore might be, less severe as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases," Fauci said.

Scientists are also examining the effectiveness of the current vaccines against the omicron variant. All people ages 18 and older are recommended to get a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine for those who are at least six months removed from their last shot.

To meet increasing demand, especially for booster shots, the Mills administration has opened a new COVID-19 drop-in vaccination clinic at the Augusta Armory, 170 Western Avenue. The clinic, operated by the Maine CDC, Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine National Guard, is offering free Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for anyone 5 and older.

"Vaccination remains the best and most effective ways to protect your health and that of your loved ones," Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. "I encourage all Maine people to take advantage of this new drop in clinic in Augusta, which will be open after typical work hours, to get their free vaccine today."

The clinic will initially be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, noon to 7 p.m. on Thursday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. The clinic is expected to be open through at least the end of 2021, although hours and days that it is open may vary in the coming weeks.

This story will be updated.

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