Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Maine accelerated over the weekend, as the delta variant tightens its grip on the state.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a tweet Monday that “123 people in Maine are hospitalized with COVID-19. Sixty-one of them are in the ICU, and 25 are on ventilators. Just 72 hours ago (Friday) those numbers stood at 98 total in the hospital, with 43 in the ICU and 17 on a ventilator.”
Both Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Maine Medical Center in Portland have seen increases since late last week. EMMC increased from 24 COVID-19 patients last Thursday to 29 on Monday, while Maine Med increased from 13 patients Friday to 16 Monday. Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast more than doubled its COVID-19 patients, from four patients last week to nine Monday.
As of Aug. 17, there had been a total of 50 hospitalizations of people under age 25 since the pandemic began, 34 percent of them under age 15.
Of those, 24 percent were age 0-4, 6 percent were age 5-9, 4 percent were age 10-14, 32 percent were age 15-19, and 34 percent were age 20-24.
There have been a total of 21,254 cases of COVID reported in Maine among people under age 25.
Rural hospitals are under a lot of pressure as lower vaccination rates in those areas leads to increased hospitalizations, said Dr. Cheryl Liechty, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist who works for Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport and Waldo County General. Liechty said the much more contagious delta variant is circulating among unvaccinated populations, and unvaccinated people are much more likely to be hospitalized.
“This is what’s happening right here, and it’s pretty stark,” Liechty said. “We’re still doing better as a state than most other places, but delta has highlighted the geographic disparities in uptake of the vaccine in our state.”
The statewide vaccination rate is about 62 percent, but there are wide differences between counties.
Cumberland County – the state’s most populous and home to greater Portland – is the most highly-vaccinated in Maine with 73 percent of the population fully immunized. Rural counties such as Somerset, Oxford, Franklin and Piscataquis have vaccination rates about 20 percentage points lower than Cumberland County. Waldo County has about 58 percent of its population fully immunized.
Hospitalizations across the country are increasing as well. The seven-day average of new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States was 11,521, a 14.2 percent increase over the previous seven days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospital intensive care units are at or near capacity in some parts of the country, especially in southern states.
The hospitalization trends are worrisome, but have not yet caused the Maine health care system to scale back other surgeries or services, said Dr. James Jarvis, physician incident commander for Northern Light Health, one of the state’s largest health care and hospital networks, in a conference call with reporters Monday.
“We are open to full business right now, but we are taxing our system,” Jarvis said.
He said more than 80 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and he hopes that full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, which was granted Monday, will lead to higher levels of vaccination. Maine has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country at 62 percent of the state’s 1.3 million population. But that still leaves more than 300,000 eligible people who have not yet gotten their shots.
“For those who are unvaccinated, you are putting yourself and others around you at risk,” Jarvis said. “What we really need is everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated.”
Liechty said small, rural hospitals are doing a “heroic” job caring for COVID-19 patients.
“For a small hospital, even just a few COVID-19 admissions really strains the capacity for that hospital,” Liechty said.
She said one of the ways to prevent hospitalizations – aside from vaccination – is monoclonal antibody therapy, which Pen Bay Medical Center has been doing as much as possible for patients who have mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms.
Hospitalizations tend to lag behind increases in case numbers, and Waldo County experienced a sharp jump in cases that peaked about two weeks ago. As of late last week – the latest case data available – Penobscot County was still undergoing a surge. Jarvis said many of the patients being hospitalized at EMMC come from rural areas.