President Biden announced Tuesday that his administration is sending ambulance crews to Maine to help relieve pressure on the health care system as the COVID-19 surge continues to send record numbers of patients into the state’s hospitals.

“FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) will deploy hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews so that if one hospital fills up, we can transport patients to beds elsewhere,” Biden said during a national address. “This week we will send dozens of ambulances to New York and Maine, because COVID is spreading very rapidly, to help transport patients.”

The president also said the federal government will purchase 500 million coronavirus rapid tests for free shipment to Americans starting in January.

Eight hospitals will receive ambulance teams, including Maine Medical Center in Portland, Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.

Details such as how many people will be on each team, when they will arrive and how long they will stay were not available Tuesday and will be released later, Gov. Janet Mills said in a news release.

“The federal teams will assist Maine emergency medical services (EMS) crews with non-emergency transportation of patients among facilities to match patients with open beds and ensure they are treated in the facility that best meets their health care needs,” Mills said.

Advertisement

 

Moving patients between hospitals will help increase and preserve hospital capacity and free up other health care workers for other tasks, state officials said.

“Like our fellow New England states, Maine’s hospitals are being pushed to the brink during this sustained surge of COVID-19, driven primarily by people who are still not vaccinated,” Mills said in a written statement. “I am grateful for this additional federal support and I am hopeful that, along with actions by my administration, it will help alleviate the strain on our health care system. Maine people can do their part by stepping up to get vaccinated, regardless of whether it’s their first or third shot.”

J. Sam Hurley, director of Maine Emergency Medical Services, a state agency that oversees the EMS network, said the “federal resources will assist in relieving the mounting pressure on our first responders by (moving) patients between facilities when it exceeds our existing capacity. This is particularly important as we continue to see increases in the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.”

Maine’s EMS network is buckling under a staffing and cost crisis that has been building for nearly a decade and strained the ability of ambulance crews to maintain coverage, especially in rural areas. The pressures have only worsened since the start of the pandemic.

In his address, Biden said he authorized FEMA to deploy hundreds of ambulances and emergency teams to hospitals across the country, including eight federal ambulance teams to Maine. Biden said that the reinforcements will allow hospitals to transport patients to open beds in other facilities.

Advertisement

AMBULANCE CREWS NEEDED

It will be helpful to have the additional support of federal ambulance crews, said John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth, which has eight hospitals in Maine – including Maine Medical Center in Portland – and one hospital in New Hampshire. Having those ambulances available for transporting patients, who need medical support, will help MaineHealth hospitals move patients more quickly to an appropriate health care setting.

“Some of our patients may need to be transported to a skilled nursing facility or a nursing home and with the demand for EMS services taxed, we want to get the patient to an appropriate health care setting as soon as possible,” Porter said.

Porter said being able to transport patients on a timely basis is an ongoing issue for hospitals that are trying to keep pace with the surge of COVID patients that has put bed capacity at or near record highs for several weeks. Federal teams that are not actively transporting patients among facilities should be available to provide support to hospital emergency departments caring for COVID-19 patients.

Alan Grant of Westbrook receives a Pfizer booster shot from Ralph Armstrong of the Westbrook Fire Department during a walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinic Tuesday at the Westbrook Community Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“The number of COVID patients we are seeing continue to be dominated by unvaccinated individuals,” Porter said. “This has very much been a surge driven by unvaccinated people.”

The Mills administration also is applying to secure federal teams to assist with monoclonal antibody clinics, and that request is pending. The Maine Army National Guard is currently assisting in non-clinical work at monoclonal antibody clinics. Monoclonal antibodies are a treatment given to people infected with COVID-19 that helps prevent patients from needing hospitalization.

Advertisement

Biden also mentioned expanding a program that has already sent teams of federal health care workers – including doctors and nurses – to hospitals to help with the surge in patients. Maine Medical Center in Portland received a team of 15 health care workers on a two-week deployment that ends Thursday.

500 MILLION RAPID TESTS

And the president pledged that his administration will purchase 500 million coronavirus rapid tests for free shipment to Americans starting in January. People will use a new website to order their tests, which will then be sent by U.S. mail at no charge, the White House said. At-home tests and lab tests have become hard to get in Maine as demand from the surge of infections and holidays has exceeded supplies.

The full set of actions aimed at helping Maine hospitals – including state actions such as the National Guard deployment and federal assistance from the Biden administration – is expected to free up 152 hospital beds to make sure COVID-19 patients do not overwhelm hospital capacity, the Mills administration said in the news release.

The news comes as Maine’s COVID surge set another record Tuesday for the number of hospitalized patients.

There were 387 patients on Tuesday, including 125 in critical care and 62 on ventilators. The spike in hospitalizations in recent weeks has been fueled by unvaccinated people contracting COVID-19, and 80-90 percent of those in intensive care in recent weeks have not been fully vaccinated, according to hospitals and state health officials.

Advertisement

Maine reported 1,558 cases of COVID-19 Tuesday in the first update since the three-day gap over the weekend. The report includes some cases dating to earlier this month because a flood of positive tests has made it impossible for state officials to process reports in a single day.

State officials also reported 22 additional deaths, which included 15 deaths that occurred in previous weeks but were not included in the state’s data until being revealed during a review of death records.

EIGHTH-HIGHEST INFECTION RATE

Maine has the eighth-highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the past seven days, Maine has reported an average of 68 cases per day for every 100,000 residents. The national daily infection rate for last seven days is 40 cases per 100,000 people.

Meanwhile, the highly transmissible omicron variant is circulating in Maine and is quickly becoming the dominant cause of new infections in the United States.

The U.S. CDC reported on Monday that omicron now represents 73 percent of all new cases of COVID-19 nationwide. There are some indications that omicron could cause less severe disease – resulting in fewer hospitalizations and deaths – but it’s uncertain and the science on the new variant is still emerging.

Advertisement

In New England, delta is still the most prevalent variant, with omicron now responsible for 37.7 percent of cases, according to federal data. In Maine, five cases were detected in a report on Dec. 17 out of 223 samples taken, which the state has not yet been updated. Maine’s health officials expect omicron cases will grow in the coming days and weeks.

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said he expects another report from Jackson Laboratories – which does the variant testing for the state – soon, but he’s not sure whether it will be this week because of the Christmas holiday.

Porter, the MaineHealth spokesman, said MaineHealth’s NorDx Laboratories looks for the delta variant in about 100 positive tests per week, and so far all tests have come back to be the the delta variant. Porter said NorDx soon may have the capability to look for the omicron variant, but in the meantime, any tests that come back negative for the delta variant would be sent to the Maine CDC for further testing to check for the presence of omicron.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 137,959 cases of COVID-19, and 1,463 deaths.

A POSITIVE SIGN

In one positive sign amid the grim fall surge extending into winter, Maine’s positive test rate had dropped to 9.6 percent on Tuesday, down from 11 percent of all tests conducted two weeks ago, representing one incubation period. The positivity rate peaked at 11.74 percent on Dec. 3.

Advertisement

Fewer tests coming back positive could be a sign Maine’s case counts will come down and hospitalization numbers will stabilize. That gives strategies such as isolating and quarantining a better chance to curb spread. However, with the more transmissible omicron variant on the horizon, the positivity rate and cases could very quickly climb back up again.

Spencer Pierce, 8, of Hollis receives his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine from Steve Sloane, interim fire chief in Westbrook, during a walk-in clinic Tuesday at the Westbrook Community Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The omicron wave is already causing cancellation and postponement of events, such as Radio City Hall performances in New York City and National Hockey League and National Football League games, and some universities are returning to remote learning.

While Maine officials have not called for new restrictions, some states and cities are reimposing precautions such as mask mandates in indoor public spaces. Boston and Chicago this week announced new requirements to show proof of vaccination in indoor settings such as restaurants, entertainment venues and gyms. Washington, D.C., enacted an indoor mask mandate.

In the Canadian province of Quebec, sweeping lockdown measures were imposed Monday, including shutting down schools, bars and gyms and enacting a 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants.

On the vaccination front, 950,300 people are fully vaccinated, representing 70.7 percent of the state’s population, and 424,379 people have gotten their booster shot, slightly more than one-third of the state’s 1.3 million residents. A booster offers the best protection against omicron, public health officials have said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this story


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.