State health officials are reporting the highest number of critical care patients with COVID-19 in Maine since the height of the pandemic in Maine last January.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units jumped from 59 Thursday to 71 Friday, one day after leaders from the state’s four largest hospitals warned that the highly contagious delta variant is straining Maine’s health care system. The only other day more than 70 people were in critical beds with COVID-19 in Maine was Jan. 20, when the number also totaled 71.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has logged more than 1,500 additional cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 20, including 267 new cases reported Friday. Maine’s seven-day average of new cases stood at 216 on Friday, compared to 70 four weeks ago and an average of just 24 cases daily for the week ending July 1.

Friday also marked the first time, since new federal recommendations were unveiled last month, that masking was recommended for vaccinated individuals in indoor public settings in all 16 Maine counties because of higher rates of community transmission. There were two additional deaths, raising Maine’s total COVID-related deaths to 928.

Medical experts say the delta variant, which accounts for almost all of the cases in Maine at present, is not only much more contagious than earlier strains of the coronavirus but also more likely to cause serious illness in unvaccinated individuals.

Statewide, 143 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday – the most since early February – and 31 of the 71 people in the ICU required ventilators.

In mid-January, only a small fraction of the state’s population had been vaccinated against COVID-19 and the state was routinely reporting daily case numbers topping 500. But today, more than 62 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents are fully vaccinated and the vast majority of new coronavirus cases – and nearly all of the ICU patients – are from the much smaller pool of unvaccinated individuals.

‘THE TIME … TO ACT IS NOW

The demand for regular and ICU hospital beds comes at a time when many facilities were already experiencing high in-patient counts for non-COVID issues during the busy summer season.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Twitter that there were 39 ICU beds available around the state Friday. That was a slight improvement from Thursday, but is down significantly from earlier in the week.

Roughly 90 percent of the approximately 200 ICU beds across Northern Light Health’s hospital network were filled Friday. Most of those beds are located at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, which Northern Light officials stress traditionally has “the ability to flex to meet demand.”

But spokesman Chris Facchini said the current situation is making it more difficult for Northern Light to adjust bed capacity to meet needs. Facchini said Northern Light officials are closely monitoring the situation with assistance from state officials and other partners.

“With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, the time for our communities to act is now,” Facchini said in a statement. “We urge Mainers to take proven steps to help keep their families safe so we can keep our hospitals available for those who need us. These steps include masking while indoors in public places, practicing good hand hygiene, and, if eligible, getting vaccinated. As other states have already seen their intensive care units hit capacity, resulting in an inability to care for patients, it is critical we all do our part to prevent this from happening in Maine.”

That echoed comments made Thursday by the leaders of the state’s four large health care networks – Northern Light, MaineHealth, Central Maine Healthcare and MaineGeneral Health – in an unusual joint appeal.

“The more COVID-19 patients we take care of in hospitals, the less resources we have to take care of all the other things we need to do,” Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer at MaineHealth, parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland, said during the joint news conference. Boomsma added that hospitals “don’t have many more tricks up our sleeve” to add capacity for COVID-19 patients.

Maine Medical Center in Portland reported 16 ICU patients with COVID-19 on Thursday, up slightly from 13 late last week, while Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast had 10 inpatients, compared to four last Friday. Among Northern Light Health’s hospitals, Eastern Maine Medical Center had 32 total COVID-19 patients Thursday while Mercy Hospital in Portland had five.

VACCINATION CONTROVERSY

Much of the nation is experiencing a surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths due to the more contagious delta variant. Maine continues to have one of the lowest infection and death rates in the country as well as among the highest vaccination rates.

On the vaccination front, 70.9 percent of eligible Maine residents and 62.5 percent of the total population had received either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single-shot vaccine distributed by Johnson & Johnson.

But a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for all health care workers statewide, announced this month by Gov. Janet Mills, continues to cause angst among some employers and controversy among a minority of workers in the field. Health care workers are already required to be vaccinated against measles, chicken pox and the flu in Maine, so the COVID-19 vaccine was an extension of existing rules.

It remains unclear how many health care workers will either quit or be forced out of jobs if they refuse to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. Vaccination rates vary widely in facilities across the state, ranging from more than 90 percent of all workers at some hospitals and 100 percent at some nursing homes to less than 30 percent at other long-term care facilities.

On Thursday, groups representing agencies that care for homebound individuals or those with disabilities that live in groups sent a letter to Mills asking for an extension on the Oct. 1 deadline in order to get more workers vaccinated or find replacements for those who leave. Earlier in the day, a modest crowd of health care workers and supporters gathered again on the street corner between the Maine State House and the governor’s mansion to protest the mandate for health care workers.

MaineGeneral’s Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta had to cancel all radiation oncology appointments Thursday after five radiation therapists called out of work.

MaineGeneral said none of the employees mentioned the vaccination mandate as a reason for calling out. But MaineGeneral spokeswoman Joy McKenna said it would be “very disappointing” if the vaccination requirement were the reason.

“As the largest community hospital in the Kennebec Valley, we care for our neighbors, friends and family,” McKenna said in a statement. “We put the health needs of our patients and staff at the forefront of everything we do. It would be very disappointing if any staff members chose to call out and deny patients the care they deserve. While we respect the right of staff to make their own decisions about the vaccination mandate, we would expect them to never put patients’ health at risk by denying them care.”

McKenna said the appointments canceled Thursday were rescheduled, and that normal daily operations at the Alfond Center had resumed Friday.

MASKS RECOMMENDED STATEWIDE

Late last month as the delta variant surged across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once again recommended that all people – whether vaccinated or not – resume wearing masks in indoor, public settings in areas with higher transmission rates. The Maine CDC subsequently endorsed the federal recommendation.

While Maine’s map changes frequently, Friday marked the first day when masking was recommended in all 16 counties.

Cumberland, Androscoggin, Kennebec, Oxford, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Washington counties had “substantial” rates of transmission, which means at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days. York, Waldo, Penobscot, Hancock, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis and Aroostook counties all fell into the “high” transmission category, with at least 100 new cases per 100,000.

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 74,966 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March 2020.


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