Maine health officials reported 1,555 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, continuing a steady rise of new transmission of the omicron variant that is adding strain to health care systems and creating disruptions for schools and employers across the state.
Three additional deaths were reported as well.
With the new cases, the seven-day average increased to 1,037, compared to 727 cases on average two weeks ago. The number of new cases reported each day doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole picture anymore, because many are from tests submitted days earlier and because there is a significant backlog of tests that needs to be processed. Additionally, many individuals might be testing positive with at-home tests, and those results aren’t necessarily reported to state officials.
But there is no question transmission is more widespread than ever. Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday that the state’s seven-day positivity rate increased to 19.76 percent, the highest of the pandemic. That means roughly one of every five PCR tests being conducted is coming back positive. The state also is processing more tests than at any other point, 825 for every 100,000 residents.
Hospitalizations had not been updated Thursday morning, but Wednesday’s total of 413 COVID-19 patients also set a new pandemic high. Of those, 106 were in critical care and 57 were on ventilators. Amid the recent spike in hospitalizations, the number needing critical care has remained flat.
The CDC has said that the percentage of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who are unvaccinated has hovered around 70 percent for several weeks. The percentage of critical care patients who are unvaccinated is higher still. The disparity between fully vaccinated patients and unvaccinated patients is even starker when considering that the number of unvaccinated people in Maine is less than half the number of those who are fully vaccinated.
The increased number of patients in hospitals, coupled with a high number of workers who are out sick themselves with COVID-19, prompted Gov. Janet Mills this week to activate 169 members of the Maine National Guard to assist hospitals. Details about where those members will be directed and when have not yet been released, but the goal is for guard members to assist in non-clinical roles that will help free up beds faster.
Hospitals have increasingly been forced to be more creative with staff.
Northern Light Health, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, on Wednesday moved five of its smaller, more rural hospitals to contingency staffing plans. which reduced the quarantine period from 10 to five days. The move was made as Northern Light reported more than 600 employees were out sick.
In another sign that Maine is struggling to keep pace with the rapid spread of omicron, the Department of Education announced Wednesday that schools will no longer be required to do contact tracing for positive cases, provided the schools have a universal mask policy.
Shah explained that the decision was made after many school officials communicated that the process of contact tracing was becoming overly burdensome and not all that effective anymore.
“Trying to catch omicron by contact tracing is like trying to catch a bullet train by bicycle,” he said.
Some schools have switched to remote learning this week because too many staff members were out sick.
Driven by the incredibly transmissible omicron variant, cases are soaring across the country to their highest level of the pandemic. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day average for cases is about 760,000, which is a staggering 170-percent increase from just two weeks earlier. Hospitalizations also are at their highest level in the U.S. – 124,163 on a seven-day average, compared to 67,883 COVID-19 patients two weeks earlier.
Since the pandemic began, there have been 158,087 confirmed or probable cases and 1,626 deaths in Maine, according to the CDC. Both remain among the lowest per capita of any state.
Although the current surge is unprecedented, there are signs emerging that it could be short-lived. In some major metropolitan areas that saw a surge of omicron cases before Maine, like New York and Boston, cases are falling nearly as rapidly as they increased. That trend has played out in other countries as well.
Shah said Wednesday that Maine has typically lagged behind greater Boston by about a week in “epidemiological time.”
This story will be updated