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Maine sees fewer critical COVID-19 cases amid surge in hospitalizations

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In this Dec.28, 2021, file photo, a sign on a Portland shop window advises customers masks are required for entry. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has seen a slight decline in COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care beds or ventilators despite rising hospitalizations overall.

The diverging trends could reflect the takeover of the omicron variant, which studies have suggested is more contagious and better at evading vaccine-induced immunity but also less likely to cause severe illness. Rising infections and record hospitalizations still pose a challenge to the state's stressed health care system as unvaccinated people remain at increased risk of severe illness.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine continues to set new records, with 436 patients hospitalized Thursday, up from 378 a month prior, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase in hospitalizations follows a rise in cases with the arrival of the highly contagious omicron variant, which now accounts for at least three-quarters of new cases here.

But the number of patients requiring the highest level of care has not surged. Maine set a record with 133 patients in intensive care units on Dec. 19, two days after the first cases of the highly contagious omicron variant were reported here. At that time, most hospitalized patients likely had the delta strain of the virus, which was predominant in Maine throughout the fall.

Since then, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care beds has decreased even as overall hospitalizations have increased, with 103 patients in critical care beds as of Thursday. Fewer patients are requiring ventilators as well — 53 on Thursday, down from a record of 68 shortly before Christmas.

Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah warned against any sort of complacency linked to the disease appearing milder on an individual basis this week, noting it would still cause "immense strain" on the state's health care system due to its rapid spread.

"Even if omicron were, say, 10 percent milder than delta but still 200 percent more contagious, the sum of that impact on our population is greater than its impact on any individual," he said.

The more contagious variant has led to more breakthrough infections among hospital employees, exacerbating staffing shortages, and forced the state to halt the use of two monoclonal antibody treatments because they were no longer effective. Epidemiological models suggest the continued spread of the virus could further drive up hospitalizations.

While the arrival of omicron has also coincided with a rise in so-called breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated Mainers, hospitalizations — and especially patients requiring critical care — remain highest among patients who have yet to receive the vaccine.

Statewide, only 28 percent of Mainers are not fully vaccinated, according to Maine CDC data. But across Maine's two largest hospital systems, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, patients who are not fully vaccinated accounted for 55 percent of total hospitalizations as of Thursday, as well as 72 percent of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units and 85 percent of those on ventilators.

The differences are more striking when accounting for the age of patients. Only 8 percent of Mainers aged 60 and older across the state are not fully vaccinated, according to state data. But across Northern Light Health's system, unvaccinated people in that age group account for 53 percent of hospitalizations and 71 percent of patients requiring intensive care beds.

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