LEWISTON – As Lewiston grapples with some of the highest levels of new COVID-19 cases during this latest surge, a critical care doctor at one of the city’s hospitals warns that being young and healthy is no longer a guarantee of protection against the virus.

From Aug. 1 to Sept. 19, Lewiston recorded 279 new cases of COVID-19, according to ZIP code-level data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Only three other ZIP codes in Maine – Bangor, Waterville and Augusta – had a greater number of new cases during that time than Lewiston.

When considered cumulatively, the five ZIP codes within Portland have recorded more new cases since Aug. 1 than Lewiston, but Lewiston has a greater positivity rate – the cumulative number of cases per 10,000 residents – than all of Portland.

Public health officials, including Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, and hospital leaders in Maine have urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to stop the spread of the virus and ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed with COVID patients.

But hospitals are already feeling the brunt of this surge.

As of Thursday, there were 221 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine hospitals, 83 of whom were in critical care and 37 of whom were on ventilators. There was an all-time high of 226 hospitalized individuals on Wednesday.

“If you’re just focused on numbers, (the new cases) have been numerous but not quite as bad as the springtime,” Central Maine Medical Center’s chief of critical care, Dr. Al Teng, said Thursday.

Dr. Al Teng receives a COVID-19 vaccination Dec. 16, 2020, from registered nurse Stephanie Jacques at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo

“What does feel different this time, however, is that the way patients are presenting to the hospital,” he said. “You know, they continue to seem younger, they’re presenting with severe COVID – or critical COVID – without having any prior so-called medical comorbidities. And they’re not necessarily immunosuppressed.”

It appears that the delta variant, which accounts for virtually all new cases in the state, per the Maine CDC’s latest report on genome sequencing, “is more lethal, anecdotally,” Teng said.

“It feels as though when patients come in and they require critical care, whichever variant, which is probably the delta that’s affecting most of the admissions, it feels as though this is more severe than prior waves,” including the spring surge, he said.

“It’s a big gamble.”

And the vast majority of them are unvaccinated, Teng said. Shah said at a media briefing Wednesday that unvaccinated people continue to make up about 65% to 75% of all COVID patients and about 90% of all patients in Maine’s critical care units.

There are patients that come who have been vaccinated, some with true breakthrough cases and others who are just under the threshold – two weeks post-final shot – to be considered fully vaccinated.

Some of those patients have landed in the intensive care unit but did not necessarily require life support or mechanical ventilation, Teng said.

“Those patients ended up doing better,” he said.

Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said that from the start, “Lewiston was very strong in our messaging to the community to get vaccinated and follow CDC guidelines.”

Cayer said that Lewiston has always followed the state and federal government’s recommendations to stop the spread of the virus so as to avoid a confusing “patchwork” of responses to the pandemic.

Even so, Lewiston has recorded the second highest number of COVID cases of any municipality in the state since the pandemic began in March 2020, behind Portland.

“The end result is the community really needs to come together, get our vaccination rates higher in Lewiston,” Cayer said, noting that the city has organized vaccination clinics and funding to partner organizations.

About 80% of all Lewiston residents are fully vaccinated as of Sept. 17, according to the state ZIP code vaccination dashboard. However, it has the highest number of unvaccinated people of any ZIP code, including the combined ZIP codes of Portland, in the state, at nearly 7,600.

“I think at this point, there is some level of responsibility, individual responsibility, to protect themselves, protect their families, protect our schools,” Cayer said.

Municipal and school district employees must be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing under President Joe Biden’s plan that he announced earlier this month. The mandate applies to private employers with 100 or more employees but under a federal agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration called a “state plan,” public employees in Maine will be subjected to this plan.

Interim City Administrator Heather Hunter said the city is still waiting for more information on the mandate.

“I think with this new rolling out the 100 (employees) is a step in the right direction because it does allow the city to refer to something that is mandating us to conduct this potential stance, if you will on vaccines,” Hunter said.

“Without that it’s very difficult because it’s such a personal choice, you know,” she said. “Regardless of how you feel about it, it’s not something that I can dictate personally. So, all I can do is strongly recommend.”

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