The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Maine dropped dramatically on Friday, falling below 400 for the first time since Jan. 11.

A total of 357 patients were hospitalized as of Friday, down from 400 on Thursday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That is the fewest inpatients statewide since Jan. 2 and a clear sign the omicron wave is subsiding in Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills also announced Friday that the state is participating in a privately funded pilot program to send free COVID-19 tests to 25,000 households in rural areas, the latest effort to make testing more widely available.

Even with the big decline this week, hospitals are still contending with patient counts that are well above last year’s surge while also struggling with staff shortages caused by COVID-19 infections and exposures. And despite the overall drop, the number of patients in intensive care increased to 86 on Friday from 84 on Thursday. The uptick follows a steady decline in critical care patients from a high of 133 on Dec. 19. There were 37 people on ventilators Friday, the fewest since late November.

State health officials reported five additional deaths Friday, bringing the number of Maine people who have died with COVID-19 to 1,733.

The latest overall hospitalization numbers add to mounting signs that the wave of infection fueled by the omicron variant is easing in Maine as it has elsewhere in the Northeast. While transmission levels and the risk of infection remain high, the rate of spread is slowing significantly.

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The pace of positive tests submitted to the state dropped to a daily average of 2,225 reported Monday through Thursday. The daily weekday average was 2,787 positive tests last week and 3,186 the week before. Not all of those tests represent new cases because some infected people are tested more than once.

WASTEWATER ALSO SHOWS DECLINE

Results of wastewater testing in Yarmouth, Portland and Westbrook also have revealed sharp declines in the prevalence of the virus in the past two weeks. The state announced this week that it’s expanding its wastewater testing in an effort to get a clearer real-time picture of community transmission trends.

Maine reported 1,428 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 Friday. But because the state is still working to clear a backlog of more than 50,000 positive tests, the daily case count no longer reflects the actual rate of new infections, only what state workers are able to process in the previous 24 hours. As a result, it also is no longer possible to compare Maine’s infection rate with other states.

Mills announced Friday that Maine has joined five other states in a partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation to deliver 125,000 free at-home COVID-19 tests to 25,000 households in vulnerable areas. Project Access COVID Tests (ACT), funded by the New York-based philanthropic organization, is meant to target residents in rural and underserved areas that don’t have easy access to testing.

Maine residents are encouraged to visit the Project ACT website – AccessCovidTests.org – and enter their ZIP code to determine their eligibility. Residents in approximately 25 percent of all Maine ZIP codes are eligible, based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index. Each eligible household will receive five tests.

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“Having convenient access to affordable, fast testing is an important tool to limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of Maine people as we go about our daily lives,” Mills said in a statement. “I thank The Rockefeller Foundation for partnering with us to send free rapid tests directly to the homes of many Maine people as we continue to work alongside the federal government to make testing more available to more folks.”

This month, the Mills administration also purchased 250,000 rapid tests that have been made available at no cost at pharmacies and health care centers across the state. Additionally, free tests from the Biden administration will begin arriving at homes any day now.

HOSPITALS STILL STRUGGLING

Even with the downward patient trends, many hospitals are still stretched and have benefited in recent weeks from assistance by Maine Army National Guard members and crews from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. On Thursday, Mills announced that a 20-person “COVID-19 Surge Response Team” will assist at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston from Tuesday to March 2.

FEMA also approved Mills’ request for a 30-day extension of federal ambulance crews, and an additional ambulance crew to be stationed at Cary Medical Center in Caribou that also will assist other hospitals in Aroostook County. The ambulance crews that were extended for 30 days were slated to leave on Thursday, and include crews at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, CMMC in Lewiston, MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.

Also this week, the Maine CDC announced that it’s in the process of moving to an automated system for case investigation to help relieve the backlog. Dr. Nirav Shah, the agency’s director, said Wednesday that it will take some time to switch to the system, and he didn’t have an estimate of how long it would take. People who test positive will continue to be notified the same way they always have been.

Shah said that because omicron is so easily transmissible – often before case investigations can begin – investigations have become far less useful, leading Maine and many other states to conclude that a more automated system would be more suitable at this stage.

As for vaccinations, Maine’s pace has dropped to its lowest point since September, about 3,000 doses administered per day on average. For much of November and December, the state was routinely averaging more than 10,000 shots per day, many of them boosters and original vaccine series for children 5-11.

Overall, 974,853 residents have gotten a final dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the Maine CDC. That represents 72.5 percent of all residents. Additionally, 553,150 individuals have gotten booster shots, or 41.2 percent of Maine’s residents. Maine ranks among the highest states in both categories.

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