Medical centers in eastern and central Maine and in York County all set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations this week as the number of people admitted for the disease continues to grow.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 inpatients statewide hit a new record of 119 on Friday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 90 a week ago. Fifty-one of those patients were in intensive care, up from 49 a week ago.

Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor continues to bear the biggest burden of any hospital in the state with an average of 22.2 confirmed COVID-19 inpatients treated each day for the six days ending Wednesday, up from 14.3 in the previous period. That figure set a pandemic high for the hospital – which reported 27 COVID-19 inpatients Wednesday – for the third week running. EMMC, the hub where acutely affected patients across northern and eastern Maine are often sent, had gone the entire month of September without admitting a single such patient and had only a handful in August and the first half of October.

MaineGeneral Medical Center again broke its record for COVID-19 inpatients for the third straight week with an average of 13.1 treated each day for the week ending Thursday, up slightly from 12.1 the previous week and 9.9 the week before that. During the summer months, there were many weeks when the Augusta hospital had no coronavirus inpatients at all.

A sign in support of health care workers was posted near the south entrance of Maine Medical Center in Portland in April. The hospital saw COVID-19 inpatient counts increase from an average of 9.4 last week to 14 for the week ending Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After remaining relatively quiet, York County’s largest hospital saw a sharp increase in COVID-19 inpatients toward the end of the week. Southern Maine Health Care Medical Center in Biddeford had five such patients a week ago but 20 on Thursday, a quadrupling in a single week. The daily average of 11.4 coronavirus inpatients far exceeded the hospital’s worst in mid-April, when the figure was 7.6 per day.

The county’s other hospital, York Hospital, broke its record for the second week, with an average of 5.3 COVID-19 inpatients each day, up from 4.1 the week before and 1.4 the period before that.

Lewiston’s hospitals also saw new highs. Central Maine Medical Center had an average of 9.3 COVID-19 inpatients each day, up from 6.6 the week before; until Nov. 13 it had never had more than five such patients being treated on the same day. The city’s other hospital, St. Mary’s, also had its busiest week ever with an average of 4.4 coronavirus inpatients a day, up slightly from 4.3 the previous period.

Maine Medical Center in Portland saw COVID-19 inpatient counts increase from an average of 9.4 last week to 14 for the week ending Thursday. Unlike its counterparts farther up and down Interstate 95, Maine Med’s burden remains well below its peak levels in the spring surge, when it was treating more than 30 COVID-19 inpatients.

Over the past two weeks, hospital officials have said they would be able to meet the surging demand by shifting staff and beds from elective surgeries if necessary. But they expressed concerns about their own staffs getting exposed while off duty, which would create ripple effects in a state that had shortages of nurses and respiratory technicians even before the pandemic struck.

Dr. James Jarvis, Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 incident commander, said Wednesday that in the early spring EMMC had prepared contingency plans to handle 100 patients and that coordination with other hospitals and hospital networks was excellent. The hospital network was seeking to weather the new surge without having to scale back on acute and chronic patient care, he said, and urged Mainers to observe public health guidelines to slow the spread of the disease: wearing masks, washing hands, maintaining social distance and avoiding holiday gatherings.

“What we don’t want to do is go back to that time when we couldn’t take care of people with acute needs and chronic needs,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis wasn’t certain why northern and eastern Maine had experienced the fall surge earlier and more acutely than southern Maine – which bore the brunt of the spring wave – but speculated weather could play a role. The coronavirus appears to spread faster in cold, dry air, which allows exhaled droplets to travel farther. “Some of it just may be that northern Maine gets colder a lot sooner,” he said.

On Wednesday, Northern Light Health – EMMC’s parent entity – reported one of its staff members had died of the disease after being exposed while off duty. The network declined to say where the person worked, out of respect for the family’s privacy.

For those acutely affected by the disease, hospitalizations typically trail initial exposure to the disease by one to three weeks, so the trend could worsen given the rapid ongoing surge in newly diagnosed cases. Over the past three weeks, Maine has repeatedly broken its daily record for new COVID-19 cases, suggesting the hospitalization surge will continue to grow.

Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland had an average of four patients a day for the six days ending Wednesday, up from three the previous period. Brunswick’s Mid Coast Hospital averaged 3.1 per day for the week ending Thursday, up from 1.9 per day last week but below the 3.6 the week before that.

During the spring and summer, it was typical to have one or two of Maine’s smaller hospitals report having a pandemic inpatient or two for a few days and then go weeks or even months without one. But for more than a month, many of these smaller hospitals have had inpatients at the same time. In the week ending Thursday, these included Franklin Memorial in Farmington, Sebasticook Valley in Pittsfield, PenBay Medical Center in Rockport, Northern Light Inland Hospital in Waterville, Blue Hill Hospital, A.R. Gould in Presque Isle, Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth, and Mayo Regional in Dover-Foxcroft.

Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator in that they typically occur one to three weeks after a person is exposed to the disease, but unlike other metrics, it is not dependent on who and how many people were tested. They can end in three ways: recovery, death or transfer to another facility.

The Press Herald’s survey is for the seven days ending Thursday, except for members of Northern Light Health, which was unable to report Thursday’s data because of the holiday. The newspaper compiles data from the hospitals and hospital networks. The data do not include outpatients or inpatients who were suspected of having the virus but never tested. It includes most of the state’s hospitals and accounts for the vast majority of the statewide hospitalizations reported each week by the Maine CDC.

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