Dr. Nirav Shah reminded Mainers on Wednesday they must take the omicron variant seriously.

Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, issued his cautionary words days after the state had detected its first five cases involving omicron.

“There will certainly be more,” Shah said at the state’s daily media briefing on COVID-19. “Though it is not the dominant variant in Maine right now, it may very well become the dominant variant over the next few weeks.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention announced Tuesday omicron is now the dominant variant in the country, having overtaken the delta variant.

Research on the severity of omicron is still underway, Shah said, and given how the variant has spread in other countries and now in the United States, it is likely omicron is more contagious than the highly infectious delta variant.

“It’s concerning,” Shah said, adding that an omicron-driven spike in cases would likely lead to another surge in hospitalizations.

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Hospitals nationwide are under immense pressure from the hundreds of people hospitalized with COVID-19. Wednesday marked the 29th consecutive day in Maine that the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 exceeded 300.

State CDC data also shows Nov. 23 as the last date on which the number of patients with COVID-19 at Maine’s intensive care units was fewer than 99. And over the past week, there have been at least 60 people on ventilators.

As of Tuesday, health care professionals at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston were caring for an average of 23 patients per day, a shift downward from the all-time highs of the past few weeks.

On average, more than 40% of those patients were in the intensive care unit, and more than half of those patients were on ventilators.

Providers at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, also in Lewiston, cared for an average of 16 patients each day over the past week.

About 65% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine are unvaccinated, Shah said. That percent increases when patients in ICUs and on ventilators are included.

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“The latest data from the (U.S.) CDC make it strikingly clear,” Shah said.

Federal data shows unvaccinated people are five times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 compared to those who are fully vaccinated. The unvaccinated are also 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated.

The tri-county region of Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties is among the least-vaccinated in Maine, according to state data.

Last month, before the first case of omicron was detected in the United States, more residents of Androscoggin County died due to COVID-19 than in any other month of the pandemic, far exceeding the record set in November 2020.

Also last month, 33 people from Androscoggin County died from COVID-19, which represents about 21% of the cumulative death toll there.

Based on its regular review of death records, the Maine CDC has added 11 deaths over the past week to the total death count for November. The previous record was November 2020, when the county recorded 21 deaths.

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Franklin County also had its worst month in November, when it recorded more than a quarter of all its deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Shah said Wednesday the increases are due in part to delta variant’s increasing hospitalizations and deaths. He also said vaccinations — or the lack of them — are changing outcomes.

“It won’t surprise you to hear that the top one of the (epidemiological factors) is vaccination rates not being where they should,” he said.

Shah also said more younger people are dying due to COVID-19 than ever before.

“The thing that has really stood out to us is the increase numbers of younger people, many of whom are unvaccinated, who are succumbing to the virus,” Shah said. “That, of course, leads to greater concern as we think about omicron.”

As the science surrounding omicron develops and with Christmas in a few days, Shah reminded Mainers there are tools at their disposal to help them stay healthy.

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“For example,” he said, “vaccines and, in particular, boosters continue to be among the best defenses against omicron.”

Shah encouraged everyone wear protective masks when in indoor public settings, get tested for the virus if feeling symptoms or before gathering with people outside the house and get the vaccination or the booster shot.

He also said more federal help is on its way. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the federal government would send eight ambulances and emergency medical teams to Maine hospitals, including to CMMC in Lewiston and Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.

The teams are to help transport nonemergent patients from at-capacity facilities to those with open beds, easing the strain on hospitals and EMS crews throughout Maine.

The expected date of their arrival had yet to be announced Wednesday.

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