Mainers hoping that warmer weather will bring a big drop in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations similar to the past two summers are likely to be disappointed, according to a nationally known authority on the virus.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and has advised President Biden, said it’s a mistake to assume COVID is seasonal and that the illness will surge in the winter and then ease in the summer, as is the case with the annual flu.

In Maine, COVID cases and patient counts dropped sharply in June the past two years before remaining at low levels through much of the following summers.

At the beginning of the past two summers, there were barely two dozen patients hospitalized with the virus in Maine hospitals. The statewide patient count was 29 on June 20, 2020, and 29 again June 20, 2021. Yesterday, the number of patients totaled 126 and had declined only slightly over the previous 10 days.

On June 20, 2020, the average daily number of new cases across the state was 26. It was 34 on the same date last year. But this year, the state’s rolling average of new cases is 228 per day. And this year’s average is artificially low because it doesn’t include an unknown number of new cases that people detect through at-home tests for the disease.

That the numbers are higher at the start of this summer “doesn’t surprise me at all,” Osterholm told the Press Herald on Monday. It just shows that more than two years into the pandemic, scientists and public health specialists are still trying, with only mixed success, to understand the virus and predict what’s ahead.

Advertisement

“We really have to be honest and say we don’t know,” he said.

One of the most recently detected variants, omicron BA.4, is now spreading in Maine and Osterholm said scientists are still trying to determine if it is more infectious than previous versions of the virus and whether it causes more or less severe illnesses. At the same time, they are on the lookout for new variants and will want to determine if they, too, are more or less infectious and more or less virulent.

Variants have emerged repeatedly throughout the pandemic as the virus mutates and becomes better able to infect those who have at least some immunity, either through having previously contracted the illness or via vaccines. As it has become more infectious, it also has become less likely to cause severe illness or death. Health experts say the vaccines continue to provide some protection against infection, but the shots are most effective at preventing severe symptoms.

Maine health care providers are expected to begin giving vaccines this week to children between the ages of 6 months to 5 years following the long-awaited federal approval to expand vaccinations to preschoolers.

VACCINATIONS FOR PRESCHOOLERS

On Sunday, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, posted a string of messages on Twitter urging parents to do just that. He said some parents may think that it’s unlikely that their kids will get COVID or that they won’t face a serious illness if they do, but that’s not the case.

Advertisement

“Kids can get COVID, they can become sick from it, and they can die from it,” Shah said.

Some pediatricians and family practices are expected to start providing vaccinations on Tuesday, and parents wanting to vaccinate their young children are already able to set up appointments at some doctors’ offices.

In addition to supplying physician networks, some vaccines also will be available through pharmacies, but they are prohibited from vaccinating children under the age of 3. State officials are urging parents to contact a pediatrician or family care provider to arrange vaccinations.

The Maine CDC said it expected 24,200 doses to arrive in Maine as soon as Monday. The agency expects the initial doses to be split evenly between the two vaccines, one from Moderna and the other from Pfizer.

Pfizer’s vaccine is one-tenth of the adult dose and requires three shots, the first two administered three weeks apart and the last at least three months later. Moderna’s vaccine, a quarter the strength of its adult version, requires two shots about four weeks apart.

There are an estimated 60,000 Maine children between 6 months and 5 years old. Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said Maine ranks near the top nationally for vaccinations and boosters among older children and adults, and he expects that to be the case with preschoolers as well.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 267,707 cases and 2,408 deaths, according to the most recent state data.


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.