Jan. 14—The Maine Army National Guard will deploy 169 Guard members to 16 hospitals and health care facilities across the state starting on Jan. 20, the Mills administration announced on Friday.
Guard members will help in non-clinical support roles as the omicron wave fills hospitals with patients and creates additional staffing shortages in the health care system.
Meanwhile, in a preliminary sign that the omicron surge might not be prolonged, COVID-19 testing in Yarmouth's wastewater system revealed a dramatic decline in virus prevalence this week after weeks of steep increases. There is no widespread testing of wastewater in Maine, but similar drops have been measured in Boston.
Despite some signs that the omicron surge could be short-lived, Maine's hospitals are now more strained than at any time during the pandemic and eager for help to arrive from the state. Guard members will be deployed through Feb. 25.
The hospitals receiving assistance include Maine Medical Center in Portland, which will get 30 Guard members; Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, 19 Guard members; Pen Bay Medical Center in Belfast, 17 Guard members and Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, 16 Guard members. Twelve other hospitals and health care facilities will receive smaller numbers of Guard members.
"As Maine continues to respond to the omicron surge, these additional deployments will help hospitals care for people with COVID-19 and other illnesses by supporting our strained health care workers, who continue to urge Maine people to get vaccinated," Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's health and human services commissioner, said in a written statement.
The deployment comes about one month after Mills sent 38 Guard members to 10 health care centers across the state to help increase capacity during the delta variant surge.
Major General Douglas Farnham of the Maine Army National Guard said in a statement that Guard members' "assistance is making a real difference during this difficult period, and we will continue to do all we can in the fight (against) COVID-19."
The deployment "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. This, in turn, will allow hospitals to safely discharge more individuals, relieving a bottleneck that will then allow hospitals to provide inpatient care for more people with COVID-19," according to a Mills administration news release.
The 169 people being deployed will join a total of 202 Guard members currently supporting the state's COVID-19 response. The Guard is currently helping with staffing testing centers and vaccine clinics, with inventory and deliveries and supporting case investigation and lab testing, among other duties.
Regular testing of wastewater by the town of Yarmouth revealed a sharp increase in levels of COVID-19 RNA starting in mid- to late- December, rising 30 percent to 54 percent each week, before the rate of increase slowed down last week to an 18 percent increase.
A report released Friday shows a 50 percent decrease in virus prevalence in the wastewater from samples taken Jan. 10-11, compared to the week before. It represents the first decline in the presence of COVID-19 in Yarmouth wastewater since early November.
Similar steep declines are being experienced in sampling being conducted in Greater Boston wastewater, a signal providing a measure of optimism among some public health experts. The experience of other countries, including the U.K., South Africa and Denmark, also suggests that omicron spreads rapidly before cases quickly crash, within weeks.
However, the Yarmouth wastewater testing only represents a small portion of the state. With no widespread testing in Maine, it's not clear if the virus is declining in other areas or still rising.
Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, said during Wednesday's media briefing that Maine in "epidemiological time" is about one week behind Boston, and that the Boston wastewater data was a "little uplifting" although it was still too early to predict what will happen in Maine in the coming weeks.
Hospitalizations declined Friday but still remain at a near-record high as patients sick with COVID-19 fill hospital beds throughout Maine.
The number of COVID-19 inpatients decreased from 436 on Thursday — an all-time pandemic high — to 424 on Friday. Patients in intensive care increased from 103 on Thursday to 109 on Friday, while patients needing mechanical ventilation rose from 53 on Thursday to 57 on Friday.
While intensive care utilization has gone up since Thursday, the number of patients in the ICU has been relatively flat for the past few weeks.
Maine's experience is similar to reports from other places that have seen an omicron surge, where hospitalizations soar, but ICU admissions remain flat or decline. Omicron, early research is indicating, appears to cause a less severe form of the disease when compared to delta and earlier variants.
Maine crossed the 300-patient threshold less than two months ago and peaked at slightly more than 200 patients during the winter surge a year ago.
Also on Friday, Maine reported 1,411 cases of COVID-19 and 18 additional deaths.
While the omicron variant is clearly driving a wave of infections in Maine and around the country, public health experts are increasingly de-emphasizing case counts as a way to track the pandemic and assess the risks. Those numbers are less useful because of a lag in reporting test results, the proliferation of at-home tests that are not reported to the state and the fact that many people who get mild symptoms don't get tested at all. Since the pandemic began, Maine has logged 159,498 cases and 1,644 deaths.
Meanwhile, the omicron variant is causing a surge in cases in schools, with some districts going fully remote or having some of the schools in their district go remote.
The MSAD 51 school district — which includes the towns of Cumberland and North Yarmouth — is going to remote learning on Friday, intending to return on Tuesday, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
"This has been a challenging week for MSAD 51 schools," said Superintendent Jeff Porter in an email to parents. "We have had serious staffing shortages most of the week, with about 15 percent of our staff out due to illness each day. We also have had large numbers of students absent from school this week — between 160-215 students out daily, with the highest absence (on Thursday)."
Some of the schools in Biddeford, Saco, Kennebunk, Brunswick, Gorham, South Portland, Scarborough, Windham and Portland have also recently had remote days.
At RSU 5 — which serves students in Freeport, Durham and Pownal — the district is reporting 367 cases of COVID-19, although schools are for now remaining in-person. The district is asking for people to be substitute teachers and volunteers to help keep in-person learning going.
"This has continued to be another tough week for COVID in RSU 5," said Superintendent Becky Foley in a letter to parents on Friday. "I'm hopeful that we are nearing the peak of this latest surge and that we will begin to see cases decrease in the next week."