Dozens of Maine Army National Guard members began arriving at hospitals across the state Thursday morning to assist in non-clinical roles as doctors and nurses continue to care for an unprecedented number of COVID-19 patients.

In all, 169 Guard members have been dispatched to health care facilities this week – including 30 to Maine Medical Center in Portland and 19 to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick – to help blunt the omicron variant’s impact on the state’s health care system.

“We are so incredibly grateful that the Guard has joined us here at Maine Medical Center,” Marilyn Flanders, vice president of patient care services, said Thursday morning outside the hospital as members arrived. “They’re going to be supporting us in room cleaning, making sure the rooms are ready for patients coming in that need our care. They’ll also be functioning as companions, so helping have extra eyes on our patients to make sure they can stay safe.”

Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston also welcomed 20 additional guard members Thursday, on top of 17 who were sent last month to help open beds for patients who need rehabilitation and nursing care before they can be discharged.

The latest addition will make it possible for the hospital to open up eight additional beds and provide support in the emergency department, which is overwhelmed, as well as at two long-term care facilities managed by Central Maine Healthcare, said Jennifer Bodger, director of care management for the health care network.

Capt. Joseph White, one of the guard members deployed to CMMC, said the mission has been eye-opening already.

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“Ninety-nine percent of our members are not in the medical field, so when they first get here, it’s kind of a little overwhelming in the beginning,” he said. “But once they get their feet wet, they are able to jump right in and provide help to the hospital staff. It’s very rewarding for them. They are really loving what they’re doing here.”

White said Guard members don’t often “get missions that require you to go out into the community and help out your fellow Mainers.” He said some have even been surprised by seeing and taking care of people they know.

HOSPITALIZATIONS STAY ABOVE 400

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals rose to 412 on Thursday, up from 411 the day before. Hospitalizations have remained at or above 400 for nine consecutive days. Of those in hospitals Thursday, 101 were in critical care and 52 were on ventilators.

Although overall hospitalizations have gone up during the recent omicron-driven surge, the number of people needing critical care or ventilators has actually decreased, a sign that the variant is leading to milder symptoms for many. The number of critical care patients peaked at 133 on Dec. 19 and the number of individuals on ventilators got as high as 68 on Dec. 23.

Nevertheless, because omicron is so widespread, and because many hospitals are seeing increased staff absences due to COVID-19, the impact remains significant and has challenged the ability of hospitals to care for all patients.

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Because vaccines have proven highly effective in preventing severe symptoms, most of the patients in Maine hospitals are not fully vaccinated.

Although the omicron variant appears to still be spreading rapidly throughout Maine, there are some signs that the wave has peaked in other parts of the country. That tracks with research from other countries, which showed a steep rise in cases followed by an equally steep decline.

“What we’re likely to be moving on from soon is the emergency phase of the pandemic,” said Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And we’ll adapt because a majority of the population will have some level of prior immunity or vaccine immunity. We are moving in that direction, but the virus can continue to surprise us.”

State health officials reported 1,384 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, although that total is not a reflection of current transmission. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday that his office is dealing with a backlog of 46,000 positive tests that have flooded in over the last two weeks and have yet to be screened to determine which are new cases and which are follow-up tests. The number of daily confirmed cases reported reflects only what CDC staff can process in any given day. And that doesn’t include the increasing number of at-home results, which aren’t often reported to health officials.

“At this point in the pandemic, case counts are not the metric of the moment,” Shah said, citing hospitalizations and deaths instead.

FEWEST CASES PER CAPITA

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According to the U.S. CDC, Maine has the nation’s lowest rate of virus transmission over the last seven days, 477 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 1,592 cases per 100,000 people nationwide. But with such a big backlog, Maine’s official case count represents only a fraction of the people actually contracting the virus in Maine.

Over the last two weeks, the state has received 32,654 positive test results, an average of 2,332 every single day. That’s almost twice as many positive results as the previous two-week period. On Wednesday alone, the state received an additional 3,273 positive test results to review. Positive tests results are not always new cases because some infected people get tested more than once, but the recent trend shows omicron is spreading rapidly in Maine and showing no sign of subsiding.

Three additional deaths were reported Thursday as well, bringing Maine’s total for the pandemic to 1,691. Across the United States, more than 850,000 people have died, by far the most of any country.

A growing number of Maine communities, all in southern Maine, have recently adopted indoor mask mandates to help curb transmission, but Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said there is no plan to reinstitute any requirements statewide.

Vaccinations, meanwhile, have slowed down in Maine after increased interest before the holiday season, especially among those seeking boosters and children ages 5-11. Overall, the state has administered 972,247 final doses, which means 72.3 percent of all residents are considered fully vaccinated. In addition, 536,575 individuals have gotten boosters, or 40 percent of the population. Among those eligible for boosters, more than 50 percent have gotten them; Maine is just the fourth state to reach that threshold.

However, as has been the case for months, there remain wide geographic disparities in vaccination rates. Cumberland County has the highest vaccination rate, at 83 percent, but 10 of Maine’s 16 counties have rates below 67 percent, including Somerset County, which has yet to reach 60 percent.

Maine health officials soon will begin working with more communities to conduct wastewater testing for signs of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, wastewater has been used as a measure of whether community transmission is increasing or decreasing, and Shah said the state plans to use it more.

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