The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Maine jumped to a new high Monday, an apparent result of a post-Thanksgiving spike on top of the ongoing surge fueled by the more contagious delta variant of the disease.

There were 361 patients in Maine hospitals Monday morning, including 112 people in intensive care and 60 patients on ventilators, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported. All are new pandemic highs, and hospital officials warn that while they are coping with the situation in the short-term, the surging demand on hospitals is creating unsustainable conditions.

Monday was the 13th straight day that more than 300 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Maine, a level far above what the state experienced during the deadly surge last winter. The numbers also represented a substantial one-day jump, up from 326 inpatients on Sunday, when 100 were in intensive care and 56 were on ventilators.

The Maine CDC reported Monday morning that the state has 46 ICU beds available – 34 for adults and 12 for children. The agency’s director, Dr. Nirav Shah, was not available for an interview Monday. “What a dark day,” he tweeted alongside some of the grim statistics.

“Holidays are like a thousand mini super-spreader events and unfortunately I think we are starting to see the impact of Thanksgiving on top of this pandemic we have been seeing especially across rural Maine,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at Maine Medical Center’s parent entity, MaineHealth, and a former director of the Maine CDC. Mills noted that only 2 percent of MaineMed’s COVID inpatients during November were from Portland. “If you look at the lists of where COVID inpatients are from it reads like a list of rural Maine towns.”

On Monday, MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital network, reported that 62 of the 72 people with COVID-19 in its intensive care units, or 86 percent, were unvaccinated, as were 20 of the 24, or 83 percent, who also were on ventilators. Only 34 of the 139 COVID-positive people hospitalized in its system, or 24 percent, were fully vaccinated. Mills said most of the vaccinated patients in intensive care were older individuals with underlying medical issues that made them especially vulnerable.

In recent weeks the surge has hit Central Maine hospitals hardest, with MaineGeneral in Augusta and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston breaking COVID inpatient records for three weeks running, though hospitals in northern and Midcoast Maine also hit record levels for the week that ended Thursday.

“Up until now it’s been regional, with Eastern Maine Medical Center at one point seeing the highest levels, and at another point Maine Medical Center and now in Central Maine,” says Dr. James Jarvis, physician incident commander for Northern Light Health, EMMC’s parent entity. “The tipping point will come if all four of the major medical centers in the state are hit at the same time because then they won’t be there for the smaller hospitals to refer patients” who need more complex medical care.

Thus far, Jarvis said, Northern Light Health – which has 10 member hospitals including Mercy in Portland – has been able to avoid large-scale postponements of non-emergency surgeries like hip and knee replacements.

“Sometimes we have struggled for a particular kind of hospital bed for a particular kind of patient and have had to delay a particular surgery, but nothing on a very wide scale,” he said. “But it wouldn’t take very much more of our capacity in any of our hospitals to change this.”

FEELING SQUEEZED

MaineHealth has had to postpone some procedures and even two weeks ago already had a backlog of more than 1,600 delayed surgeries, Mills said. “If these high rates continue we can’t keep putting people off having their surgeries,” she noted.

“The other thing squeezing us is that until a month or so ago, if we couldn’t find an ICU bed in Maine we could transfer people to Boston or Connecticut or New York, but now those places don’t have a lot of availability,” Mills said. “It’s like watching a train coming down the track and it can feel very daunting.”

Mills noted that while it was a challenging time for staff and patients, they are able to care for anyone who needs care and urged people not to delay seeking help if they need it.

The Maine CDC did not release any new information about COVID-19 cases Monday because the positive tests are not processed on  weekends. An update is expected Tuesday.

Maine reported about 800 new cases a day last week, a high level of new infections that began before Thanksgiving.

While the delta variant continues to drive Maine’s record-setting number of hospitalizations, health officials are closely watching the spread of the omicron variant.

The latest variant of coronavirus  has been detected in 17 states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, as well as in Quebec. Scientists continue to study how much of a threat it poses, but it appears to be more transmissible and is fueling case spikes in other countries.


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