As Maine hospitals see another surge of patients, hopeful signs emerge

·5 min read

Jan. 12—COVID-19 hospitalizations reached another record on Wednesday, further stretching the capacity of the state's health care system as hospitals await help from the Maine Army National Guard and a federal surge response team.

Despite the spike in overall patients, the number of people in intensive care remained virtually unchanged. No additional deaths were reported Wednesday.

And there are some preliminary signs — based on what is happening in the Boston area and New York — that the omicron wave in Maine soon could peak and begin subsiding.

The number of Maine's hospitalized patients jumped to 413 on Wednesday from 395 on Tuesday, eclipsing the previous pandemic record set Monday. COVID-19 patients in intensive care, meanwhile, ticked up from 105 on Tuesday to 106 on Wednesday. Patients requiring mechanical ventilation declined from 60 to 57.

The trends in Maine so far appear to mirror what has been reported in other U.S. cities where omicron has become dominant, with hospitalizations increasing but ICU utilization flat or slightly declining. Hospitals are straining under the surge of patients and staff absences, but COVID-19 patients infected with the omicron variant are less likely to need critical care or life support.

Meanwhile, there are signs in other parts of the country that the omicron surge already is on the downslope. That is consistent with the experience of other countries where omicron arrived earlier — the United Kingdom, South Africa and Denmark — that suggests the U.S. could experience a huge spike in cases followed by a quick downward turn in just a few weeks.

In Greater Boston, the wastewater is routinely surveyed for the presence of COVID-19, and levels that rose rising dramatically in mid-December to early January have dropped about 40 percent in one week. There are also some signs that omicron is easing in New York, with cases plateauing recently in the state, and declining in New York City.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Wednesday that the wastewater data from Boston is "a little uplifting."

"In epidemiological time, Maine is approximately a week behind the Greater Boston area, and about 10 to 12 days behind New York," Shah said.

In Maine, neither the state nor any large city is testing wastewater for COVID-19. However, Yarmouth has been testing its wastewater for COVID-19 since September 2020. The latest report covers sampling done on Jan. 3-4, when virus levels reached the highest recorded levels since testing began in Yarmouth. However, the rate of increase had begun to slow, and testing results in Yarmouth are about a week behind the Greater Boston results.

"The current stretch of high viral levels has lasted longer and had consistently higher levels than any previous period (including January 2021)," according to an explanation of the results on Yarmouth's website. "Fortunately, the rate of increase of 18 percent in the wastewater viral concentration since the December 21 test is slightly lower than the rates of increase of 30 percent, 54 percent and 33 percent during the previous three weeks. ... Let's hope that this trend continues."

Meanwhile, the Maine CDC and Maine Department of Education announced new rules Wednesday that ease the requirements for contact tracing of COVID-19 cases in school districts that have mask mandates in place. The change is the latest response to the more contagious omicron variant, which can be transmitted through more casual contact than previous strains.

"Schools enforcing a universal masking policy may choose to suspend contact tracing in light of the transmissibility of the omicron variant and its impact on the effectiveness of contact tracing," the Maine DOE said in a news release. Schools that do not have a masking policy must still conduct contact tracing.

Shah said contact tracing is less effective considering how contagious omicron is and its shorter incubation period, making it harder to detect in time to make quarantine and isolation strategies effective. He said "trying to catch omicron by contact tracing is like trying to catch a bullet train by bicycle."

Kelli Deveaux, Maine DOE spokeswoman, said in a statement that the agency does not keep a list of school districts that don't have mask mandates.

"We continue to urge communities to demand that their schools utilize the strategies that have been proven to reduce transmission of COVID-19, thereby keeping staff and students safer and in school," Deveaux said.

Also on Wednesday, Maine reported 1,377 more COVID-19 cases, while Gov. Janet Mills called on the Maine Army National Guard to assist health care systems strained during the omicron wave.

The case count is increasingly being de-emphasized by public health experts as a way to track to virus and assess the risk of infection. Because state officials are dealing with so many tests, and because many people are taking at-home tests and not reporting the results to the state, the daily case counts from the Maine CDC don't necessarily capture the most current picture. Only a portion of new infections are included and many are from positive tests dating back a week or more.

With Maine hospitals strained, Mills is deploying up to 169 Guard members to non-clinical support roles at health care facilities across the state. It's the second time during the pandemic that Mills has activated the Guard to assist hospitals. The Guard will begin its 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," Mills said in a news release. "Their assistance will open up additional beds at nursing facilities, in swing bed units and at other 'decompression sites' that accept patients discharged from hospitals.

"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."

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