Dr. John Alexander is the chief medical officer at Central Maine Medical Center. The hospital is seeing the highest number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Vanessa Paolella/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — As Androscoggin County’s COVID-19 cases rise, the number of patients hospitalized at Central Maine Medical Center is also increasing.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in patients,” Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer for Central Maine Healthcare, said Tuesday.

“In the last week we have just about 20 patients a day, between 17 to 20, which is unlike what we’ve seen during other surges,” he said.

Last week the hospital was averaging 15.6 a day for COVID-19 patients, which was a record. Two weeks ago the hospital averaged 9.4 a day.

The highest on record was the third week in January when CMMC was averaging 16 patients a day.

COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in CMMC’s intensive care unit because of better air ventilation, not necessarily because they are that sick, Alexander explained.

However of the 20 in ICU, 10 are critically ill, Alexander said.

“We’re also seeing the age of our patients going down, several patients ill in their 40s and 50s,” Alexander said.

Younger people getting seriously sick with COVID-19 often reflects how the disease is spreading and infecting those with existing health issues, he added.

Asked why the county is the state’s COVID-19 hot spot, Alexander said there could be a number of reasons.

Like Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah, Alexander said the outbreak at Bates College in Lewiston was significant.

“We know nationally younger people become more infected due to the prevalence of the variant virus,” which spreads more easily, he said. “There’s no question part is due to a relaxation and fatigue of masking and social distancing.”

The county, and especially Lewiston, has a diverse population, and downtown Lewiston has a high density of residents.

“The other piece is our vaccination rate,” Alexander said. Androscoggin County has continually lagged other counties with a lower percentage of the population vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Maine CDC statistics showed the county has the lowest final dose vaccination rate of 30.86%; the state average is 38.48%.

“I’m sure the (Johnson & Johnson vaccine) pause did not help matters,” even though the chances of getting a blood clot was one in a million compared to the higher likelihood of getting seriously ill from COVID-19.

The fact that the pause happened with only six cases of blood clots out of 6.8 million people who got the shot proves how the nation’s safety measures are working, Alexander said.

 

On Tuesday a leader in the Somali community said there’s been hesitancy among immigrants to get a vaccine, especially after the J & J pause.

Alexander said his hospital has addressed challenges “trying to ensure our New Mainers population had testing, came forward if they had symptoms.”

Testing sites were opened within walking distance of downtown Lewiston, he said, and the Auburn Mall vaccine clinic has held special half days to ensure “anyone from the New Mainer population can get a vaccine.”

St. Mary’s Regional Health Care and Androscoggin Home Health has also worked with that population to provide protection from COVID-19, Alexander pointed out.

The availability of vaccine appointments at the Auburn Mall is improving, he said, between 1,000 to 1,300 shots are being administered a day four days a week, he said.

“A month ago no one could get an appointment,” Alexander said. Appointments are still not easy to get, but most people are now able to book an appointment within a few days.

The Maine CDC has increased the number of doses going to the mall at 3,300 first doses of Pfizer a week, plus a corresponding number of second shots.

As long as the Auburn Mall continues to show a high demand for appointments, that number of doses from the state will likely continue, Alexander said.

He offered doctors advice to avoid getting COVID-19 and stay out of the hospital, “It is very important to protect yourself: remained masked, socially distance in public areas,” and when able get the vaccine, Alexander said.
That’s the way, he said, “to get past this.”

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