COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maine rose to their highest total of the pandemic Saturday, breaking the record set Friday and straining system capacity as hospitals report large numbers of staff are infected with the virus.

Meanwhile, many of those getting vaccinated at a clinic Saturday said they know a growing number of people who have contracted COVID-19.

There were 399 COVID-19 patients in hospitals throughout Maine, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported Saturday, up from 391 Friday.

The previous high before Friday was 387 on Dec. 21. Hospitalizations dipped to 327 on Dec. 26, but have been climbing since. The Maine CDC has said 70 percent of all people hospitalized with COVID-19 are not fully vaccinated.

Of those hospitalized, 106 were in critical care and 57 on ventilators, the state reported Saturday. Both numbers are down from Friday’s 110 in critical care and 59 on ventilators. Unlike overall hospitalizations, those totals remained steady and even declined in recent weeks as cases have risen, a likely sign that the omicron variant is causing fewer severe cases.

 

However, the speed with which omicron is spreading indicates it might be even more contagious than health officials had warned earlier.

Early advice suggesting that infection is most likely after prolonged contact with someone who has the disease is no longer valid, the president of the Maine Medical Association said Saturday.

“The trouble with omicron is it spreads real fast,” said Dr. Jeffrey Barkin. Omicron spreads as easily as perfume wafting through the air indoors, he said. The omicron variant could be caught just by walking past an infected person indoors, he said.

“It could be an elevator ride that is brief but in a contained space,” he said. “That’s why really good masking to block out those highly infectious virus particles is a good idea if you don’t want to get sick.”

He recommends N-95 masks, even the medical grade N-95s. The KN-95 masks are good, he said, but make sure the mask fits snugly across the nose creating a protective seal. “The better it fits, the better,” he said.

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said the omicron variant is “several orders of magnitude more infectious” than experts previously warned. People at high risk, including those who are immune compromised or unvaccinated, “need to be super careful now,” Horsburgh said.

Experts predict that infections will continue to rise in urban areas with higher population densities, even those that have high vaccination rates.

That’s already happening, said several people who turned out Saturday for a walk-in vaccine clinic at the Goodfire Brewing Co. in Portland hosted by co-owners – and husband and wife doctors – David and Julia Redding.

Shayla Skinner of Portland, who was getting her booster, said more and more people she knows are contracting COVID-19.

“It seems like everyone has it right now. My roommate tested positive, so I went to my parents. We all took the test and were negative.” But then her step-sister and mother tested positive, she said.

Joe Bruno, right, and Michael Coppi, left, from Community Pharmacy, talk with Neely Hunt, left, and Shayla Skinner, who came together to get their booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines at Goodfire Brewing’s “Booze-ter Clinic,” on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Skinner said she still has not contracted COVID-19. “But everyone I talk to knows at least three people who have tested positive.”

Neeley Hunt of Portland, who also got her booster shot at Saturday’s clinic, said the omicron variant is spreading quickly among “so many in the past month.”

Hunt came down with the virus 11 days ago. “I had both vaccinations, I also had COVID a year ago.”

In her recent bout, “the cough was pretty gnarly,” Hunt said. “I had body aches, fatigue.” She’s feeling better now, but is still fatigued.

Both women were thrilled to get a booster at the brewery – it’s still hard to find a booster appointment, Hunt said. And, she added with a grin, “Booze and boosters?!”

Dr. Barkin had a warning for anyone exposed to the virus who then tests negative with a home test.

“You want to repeat the test. Follow the directions on the test for a re-test, because there’s a risk of a false negative,” he said. “If it’s positive on a home test, or the minute you have symptoms, you’ve got to quarantine for five days. After that, you have to wear a mask” when leaving home, he said.

Barkin said expectations that the vaccine will prevent illness must be recalibrated.

“The vaccines do not prevent getting the virus, but what they do very well is if you do get infected, they make it so that your risk of getting really sick or dying goes down a lot,” he said.

Whether 25 percent or 75 percent of the population ends up getting COVID-19 “is speculative,” he said. “But it will be a good number. The future is going to be different.”

People also need to understand that recommendations from experts today could change in a week or two as case numbers rise and fall, Barkin said.

“The more flexible we are, the more easy it will be to adapt to the changes which are already upon us,” he said. “We’ve got to do that together.”

The Maine CDC reported 1,203 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and four more deaths. Since the pandemic began, there have been 153,376 confirmed or probable cases, and 1,603 deaths in Maine. Both remain among the lowest per capita of any state.

Because state officials are dealing with so many tests, and because many people are taking at-home tests and not reporting the results to the state, the daily case counts from the Maine CDC don’t necessarily capture the most current picture. Many of the new cases reported this week have been from positive tests dating back a week or more.

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