LEWISTON – The growing body of evidence that the delta variant may cause severe cases of COVID-19 in children is yet another reminder for the public to get vaccinated, especially as children return to school this week.

State health officials reported 415 new cases of COVID-19 statewide Saturday, including another 20 cases in Androscoggin County, two cases in Franklin County and 13 cases in Oxford County.

The state no longer updates case data Sundays and Mondays.

Two additional deaths were reported, one resident of Androscoggin County and the other from Aroostook County. That brings the cumulative death toll from COVID-19 to 930 in Maine and 89 in Androscoggin County.

As of Monday, there were 136 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19. Sixty-nine were listed in critical care and 28 of those were on ventilators.

Out of 329 total critical care beds in Maine, 69 were available as of Monday morning.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said at a media briefing last week that about 70-75% of COVID-19 inpatients were not fully vaccinated. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the current surge in cases marks the first time that a majority of the population could be fully vaccinated against COVID.

“One thing happening is a bifurcation of the pandemic,” Shah said in a Tweet on Sunday. “If you are vaccinated, you are still at some risk – since no vaccine is 100% (effective) – but that risk is significantly lower overall. If you’re unvaccinated, the delta variant is menacing.”

A pediatric hospitalist at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston said that before the emergence of the delta variant, he hadn’t seen as many children hospitalized with COVID.

“I think at the beginning of the pandemic, when the delta variant wasn’t around, we were fairly confident in saying that younger people weren’t as severely affected for the most part by COVID infection,” Dr. Joe Anderson said. “But with the delta variant, it’s really changed the game. Young and healthy people, including children, are no longer safe from having moderate to severe illness that could land them in the hospital, or worse,” he said.

Research on how exactly the delta variant affects children is still limited.

On top of that, Dr. Gretchen Pianka, chief of pediatrics at Central Maine Healthcare, said, “We are definitely seeing a very strange season for viruses in general.”

Typically, around this time of year, most of the children Pianka sees are coming in for their sports physicals and annual checkups. She usually sees a fair bit of poison ivy and the occasional stomach bug, but it’s not until the start of flu season in the late fall that she sees children who are really sick.

She said children are sick with multiple viruses at one time, too, which is unusual. However, prior to COVID, doctors would not test children for most viruses except for maybe respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which usually causes cold-like symptoms.

“Now, we’re seeing lots of respiratory stuff, which is just not common for our summer clinic,” said Pianka, who practices at Central Maine Pediatrics in Lewiston.

But with COVID, doctors do a full viral panel, and the results of that have been shocking, Pianka said.

“We’re seeing simultaneously croup, which is parainfluenza virus, the RSV. We’re also just seeing regular old cold viruses, rhinovirus, and then we have COVID on top of that,” she said. “So, we just have like all kinds of things happening at once. And some of the sickest kids that we’ve had, actually, are the ones that have multiple viruses simultaneously.”

With this confluence of viruses, “it could be a very difficult school year just because of that,” Pianka said.

With children returning to school soon, and the fact that those under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive a COVID vaccine, high levels of community inoculations are more important than ever, both doctors said.

The more opportunities a virus has to spread among people over a long period of time, the more likely it is to mutate. The delta variant, which now accounts for close to 100% of all cases in Maine over the past month, is the result of that, research shows.

And the next mutation could be more contagious and deadlier than the delta variant, more harmful to children or vaccine resistant, they say.

As more people get vaccinated, the virus has fewer opportunities to spread and mutate. Not only that, but high vaccination rates will protect people who cannot get vaccinated yet or have a less robust reaction to a vaccine, such as children or immunocompromised people, medical professionals say.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Anderson said he had not treated an infant with COVID symptoms. But since then, he saw a 3-month-old with those symptoms but the baby was not hospitalized.

“I will say that almost everybody that we’ve seen with symptomatic COVID has been unvaccinated,” Anderson said. “There have been a couple (symptomatic breakthrough cases) that I’ve heard of that I haven’t seen personally but the ones that I have seen, were unvaccinated. And again, the 3-month-old had no choice, right, but their family was not vaccinated.”

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