Number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals jumps back up

COVID-19 hospitalizations increased Monday after declining several days last week, but recent wastewater testing at two southern Maine locations suggests the spread of the omicron variant could be easing.

There were 382 people in the hospital with COVID-19, an increase of 30 patients since Saturday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said. Of those, 92 people were in critical care, an increase from 86 on Saturday, and the number of people needing mechanical ventilation remained steady at 38.

Capt. Joe Carroll of the Westbrook Fire Department carries a COVID test after assisting someone at the drive-thru testing site at the fire department Sunday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Before Monday’s increase, hospitalizations had been on a downward trend since Jan. 22when there were 429 people being treated for COVID-19 in Maine’s hospitals.

Nationally, COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined 9 percent during the past week, according to the US CDC., but they remain high overall.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said Monday during the Maine Public radio show “Maine Calling” that the pandemic outlook is “better, but still bad.”

“Hospitals are still under tremendous stress and strain right now,” he said. “There will be some days and weeks better than others, some degree of ebb and flow.”

Still, other metrics show that the omicron variant surge appears to be easing in Maine and much of the United States.

Both Portland and Yarmouth have been testing for COVID-19 in their wastewater treatment systems, and both communities have shown a sharp decline in the presence of the virus when compared to early January.

In the most recent report, from testing conducted last week, the presence of COVID-19 in Yarmouth’s wastewater declined 36 percent from the week before. In Portland, the Westbrook treatment plant experienced a 24 percent decrease over the previous week, while the East End plant had a more modest decline of 4 percent.

“It is not just falling, it’s falling,” Shah said about results from wastewater testing over the past few weeks. “That’s a good and hopeful sign.”

With case counts now an unreliable measure of current pandemic conditions – because of a massive backlog and other factors, such as the use of in-home tests that are not reported to the state – wastewater testing is becoming a superior way to assess current conditions, public health officials have said.

Maine will be expanding its wastewater testing capacity in the coming weeks to 23 locations across the state, with results to be published online, perhaps as soon as later this week. The program is a combination of a $400,000 Maine CDC initiative and some municipal treatment systems signing on to a federal program.

Meanwhile, hospitals continue to get assistance from Maine Army National Guard members and federal crews. On Tuesday, a 20-person US Department of Defense military medical personnel crew – including doctors, nurses and respiratory technicians – will arrive at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and will stay through March 2 to help care for COVID-19 patients.

Ambulance crews that have been in Maine for a month as part of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 surge response initiative also have been extended through the end of February. Those crews are assisting hospitals with transporting patients to long-term care facilities and between hospitals. And more than 150 Maine Guard members are assisting hospitals in various non-clinical roles through the end of February.

Jason Wigglesworth waits for the 9A Metro bus at a stop on Congress Street in Portland on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On the vaccination front, the pace of shots has slowed in recent weeks. Overall, 73 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents are fully vaccinated, and 41 percent have received their booster shots. Both rates are among the highest of any state.

As has been the case for many months, though, there is a gap of more than 20 percentage points between the highest vaccinated county, Cumberland, and some of the lowest vaccinated counties, Somerset, Piscataquis and Franklin.

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