The highly contagious COVID-19 variant behind a nationwide surge of infections is continuing to spread in Maine, based on laboratory results released Monday morning as schools and businesses reopened after the holiday break.

Omicron accounted for 8.75 percent of positive COVID-19 cases screened late last month in Maine, up from a revised estimate of 5.5 percent the week before. Those numbers are expected to change as more samples are tested, but indicate omicron soon will be the dominant driver of infections here, too, according to Ryan Tewhey, who leads a team of researchers at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor that monitors coronavirus strains for the state.

Ryan Tewhey, photographed in September at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, said Monday that “We’re at that point in the (omicron) curve where things are going to increase very quickly.” Tiffany Laufer/The Jackson Laboratory

“The omicron growth curves are exponential, so they appear slow for the first few weeks and then will grow very quickly,” Tewhey said. “We’re at that point in the curve where things are going to increase very quickly.”

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals climbed from 340 on Sunday to 369 on Monday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hospitals that were pushed beyond their limits last month have been preparing for another possible rise in cases this month, both because of holiday gatherings and because of the way the omicron variant has driven up patient numbers in other parts of the country and the world.

While the overall hospitalization numbers increased, the number of people in intensive care dropped slightly to 113 from 119, and the number of patients on ventilators dropped to 54 from 57.

Vaccinations and booster shots continue to provide protections against severe illness, whether from the omicron variant or the delta variant that arrived in the summer, health experts say. Most patients in Maine hospitals and the vast majority of those in intensive care are unvaccinated, according to the Maine CDC.

The highly transmissible omicron variant is taking over in many places in the United States, including New York and Washington, D.C., after causing huge spikes in cases in South Africa, the United Kingdom and other countries.

The seven-day average of daily new cases in the United States climbed to more than 316,000 on Monday, according to the U.S. CDC, the highest case counts during the pandemic so far. Maine does not release case counts over the weekend and the next report will be released Tuesday.

The number of people hospitalized nationwide with COVID-19 increased to 74,318, up nearly 50 percent from 50,056 hospitalizations on average this time last month.

A spike in cases resulting from omicron in many states is creating staffing shortages and driving an increase in hospitalizations, although hospital numbers are not rising as quickly as infections. Schools in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit switched to remote learning instead of returning to school after the holidays, while schools in New York and Washington, D.C., stayed open but ramped up testing, according to news reports.

NUMBERS REVISED

The omicron variant made up 8.75 percent of samples gathered the week of Dec. 19-25, with omicron detected in seven of 80 samples, according to a report released Monday based on genomic sequencing by The Jackson Laboratory.

Omicron made up 5.51 percent of samples the week of Dec. 12-18 and 1.04 percent the week before that, according to the report released Monday.

A report released by the state last week showed 10.45 percent of samples from Dec. 12-18 were omicron, but that was revised downward to 5.51 percent after more samples came in and a lower percentage tested positive for the variant. The initial Dec. 12-18 report consisted of 67 samples, but the report on Monday was revised to include 127 samples.

Tewhey said the Maine CDC continues to send samples to the laboratory after the first week, so the numbers are constantly being revised.

Despite the revised numbers, Tewhey said Monday that omicron is on the expected growth rate and that “things are going to start to turn exponential.”

Tewhey said that based on experiences in other places, omicron could be more than 50 percent of samples collected in Maine by next week’s report, to be released on Jan. 10, which will measure sequencing for the week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1. The first case was announced Dec. 17, from sequencing done the previous week, so Tewhey said that would fit with omicron’s trend of being the dominant strain within 20-23 days after the initial case is discovered. The delta variant typically became the dominant strain 60-70 days after the first case, Tewhey said.

But from what has happened in other countries, it’s possible that the number of cases also could crash more quickly than the delta variant, Tewhey said.

“Out of South Africa and the U.K. what we are seeing is the upslope is quick, but it’s not sustained,” Tewhey said. “It peaks very quickly and then comes down, which is encouraging.”

‘IMPOSSIBLE TO PREDICT’

Tewhey cautioned that it’s impossible to predict what will happen in Maine because there are so many differences, such as demographics and the percent of people vaccinated or have had a recent prior COVID-19 infection.

Omicron also may cause less severe illness in general than the delta variant. Hospitalization rates in other parts of the world did not rise as dramatically as infections.

While omicron may be less severe for adults, it could cause more health issues for younger children, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the FDA, told CBS News on Sunday.

“It does appear now, based on a lot of experimental evidence that we’ve gotten just in the last two weeks, that this is a milder form of the coronavirus,” Gottlieb said on “Face the Nation.” “It appears to be more of an upper airway disease than a lower airway disease. That’s good for most Americans. The one group that that may be a problem for is very young children – toddlers – who have trouble with upper airway infections.”

Vaccination – especially booster doses – protects against omicron, limiting severe disease and hospitalization. The FDA on Monday approved boosters for the 12-15 age group, after previously approving boosters for those 16 and older.

In Maine, 71 percent of the state’s 1.3 million residents are fully vaccinated, while 35 percent have received their booster shot.

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