Dec. 1—As a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant officially reached the U.S. on Wednesday, Maine officials stressed that the delta variant continues to pose a more urgent threat as more people than ever are in hospitals and on ventilators and cases are expected to keep rising.
State health officials reported 938 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and three additional deaths, including a man in his 40s. The report of more than 900 new cases comes after a decline in new infection reports over the past week caused by a slowdown in testing over the holiday and a five-day gap in the state's processing of positive tests. Health officials in Maine and nationwide are expecting a post-holiday surge of new infections in the coming days as the delta variant continues to spread, primarily among people who have not been vaccinated.
Maine reached a new high Wednesday with an 11.6 percent average positive test rate, further evidence that more cases and hospitalizations are likely. State officials have said a positive test rate under 5 percent indicates some containment of virus transmission. The national average of tests that come back positive also has been rising and is now 7.8 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hospitalizations increased again on Wednesday to another pandemic high — 334 patients. Of those, 99 are in critical care and 49 were on ventilators. The number of people currently on ventilators is the highest Maine has seen to date. Six people in the hospital right now are children, including two in intensive care. Over the last month, the number of people in the hospital on any given day has increased by nearly 60 percent.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said unvaccinated people are still driving the bulk of hospitalizations. The most recent count showed two out of every three COVID-19 patients in a Maine hospital were unvaccinated, and for those in critical care, 90 percent were unvaccinated.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said at a media briefing Wednesday that the state is working with hospitals to free up capacity.
"We're no longer in planning phase, we're in the execution phase because we have seen these record high numbers of people in Maine hospitals with COVID-19," she said. "That has taken the form of a very targeted approach based on what the needs are."
In some cases, she said, that means working with hospitals to provide staffing at nursing facilities so patients who don't need to be in a hospital can move to another facility. In other instances, it has meant connecting smaller hospitals with therapeutic drugs, like monoclonal antibodies, that are designed to keep people from being hospitalized if they contract COVID-19.
Despite the sustained surge of new virus transmission in Maine, coupled with record hospitalizations and high death totals, Lambrew said the state is not considering reimposing any restrictions or mandates that had been in place last year, such as an indoor mask requirement.
"I do want to remind people what is in place. There are still fairly strict travel guidance that the U.S. CDC requires. They're not recommendations, they're requirements, to try to limit spread in that way," she said.
Lambrew said that because all Maine counties are seeing moderate or high community transmission, "we strongly recommend ... that people wear masks in public indoor settings." Compliance with the recommendation varies widely depending on the setting and on the community.
"But it remains that a COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to prevent somebody from becoming seriously ill or dying from this disease, so we continue our tireless effort to try to figure out how we can encourage and get people vaccinated," Lambrew said. "No amount of other protections or precautions — which do have effects on the economy, on mental health, on attendance in school, on other sorts of activities that are also critical to health — none of that is going to be as effective as getting people vaccinated."
Since the pandemic began, 3,138 people have been hospitalized with the virus at some point, and 1,327 people have died.
The state's report of new cases on Wednesday increased the seven-day case average to 398, although that number is artificially low because of the long holiday weekend. On Tuesday, the CDC reported 1,173 new cases for the five-day period from Thanksgiving through Monday — only about 235 per day — reflecting a trend of fewer tests conducted and processed over weekends, and even more so on a holiday weekend.
The seven-day average number of new cases in the United States has decreased at the start of this week, according to figures from the U.S. CDC, but that too is largely a function of decreased testing around the holiday. Prior to Thanksgiving, cases had risen by about 40 percent over the last month.
But with Wednesday's arrival of the omicron variant — a case was confirmed in California — the landscape could change. Shah said scientists are still learning more about the new variant.
"It is a concern," he said. "The question now is not whether it's a concern but whether it's a threat and if so, to what degree. The bottom line there is that more scientific data are needed before we jump to any conclusions."
Shah also said it's too early to tell how much protection vaccines will provide against the omicron variant, but he explained that vaccine protection is not a simple yes or no question.
"It will take scientists some time to understand just how well the current vaccines hold up in the face of omicron," he said. "But here's the key: If you're vaccinated, your immune system is not a blank slate anymore. Just as the virus can adapt, so can your immune system."
Maine has expanded its regular effort to screen virus samples to watch for new variants such as omicron.
Vaccinations continue to be steady in Maine, especially booster shots. The state is averaging more than 5,000 doses over the last week. Overall, the state has administered 915,341 final doses, which represents 68.1 percent of all residents, and 297,160 boosters, which covers 22 percent of people.
Since children ages 5 through 11 became eligible for the two-dose Pfizer vaccine about a month ago, 27,416 in that age category have gotten first doses, or 28.4 percent. But as has been the case throughout Maine's vaccination effort, there are wide geographic disparities. Cumberland County, for instance, has seen 48 percent of elementary school age children get first doses, the highest rate of any county. On the other end, half of Maine's 16 counties have yet to reach 20 percent.