LEWISTON – The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will add wastewater testing to its arsenal of COVID-19 surveillance tools as the fast-moving omicron variant outpaces the state’s tracking abilities.

Omicron’s prevalence in Maine has exploded over the past month. The Maine CDC estimated that omicron jumped from 1% of all new cases in mid-December to 79% by the second week of January, according to the latest genomic sequencing report published Friday.

Maine’s testing volume and positivity rate has also exploded.

“In under three weeks, the number of positive results coming in has more than tripled. This is a function of the omicron variant,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said at a media briefing Wednesday.

The “massive increase” in positive results reported to the state every single day has resulted in 46,000 positive tests awaiting processing, Shah said.

“At this point in the pandemic, case counts are not the metric of the moment,” he said.

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Hospitalizations are a more accurate way to gauge where the state stands in the fight against COVID. There are challenges with those numbers, too, however.

Hospitalizations – and deaths – are a lagging indicator of infections since they typically occur 10 or more days following an initial exposure. They also do not always reflect regional trends, since where a person is hospitalized is not necessarily where they are from, Shah said.

That’s why the Maine CDC, working with the U.S. CDC and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, will expand wastewater testing to roughly 20 sites across the state in the coming weeks.

Because COVID can be detected in wastewater, wastewater testing has been used as a surveillance tool by municipalities and in other congregate living settings, such as university campuses.

“It’s a helpful tool to monitor and track the course of the virus at a community level,” Shah said. “Wastewater testing can provide an early indicator of the presence of and the trends of COVID-129 cases across the community.”

While not diagnostic, it can serve as an early warning system of sorts and allow the Maine CDC to “pivot” focus to communities where COVID infections appear to be on the rise.

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MORE HELP ON THE WAY

Additional National Guard members are scheduled to arrive at health care facilities statewide as the omicron-driven wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations exceeded 400 for the eighth consecutive day Wednesday.

Beginning Thursday, 169 additional members of the Maine National Guard are set to arrive at 16 health care facilities statewide, including at Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, both in Lewiston; Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington; and Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway.

Members will also go to two long-term care facilities owned by CMMC’s parent company, Central Maine Healthcare: Bolster Heights Residential Care in Auburn and Rumford Community Home in Rumford.

Their deployment is scheduled through the end of February.

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration said in a news release last week that these members will join more than 200 others deployed across the state on COVID response orders.

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In mid-December, National Guard members were deployed to CMMC to help set up a “swing bed” unit for on-site skilled nursing care. Additional members went to Stephens Memorial, Franklin Memorial, Bridgton Hospital and Rumford Hospital to assist with administering monoclonal antibodies.

Federal COVID response teams have been helping Maine health care facilities as well. Earlier this month, four nurses and pharmacists contracted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived at CMMC to help administer COVID vaccines.

And in December, FEMA dispatched eight ambulance teams to Maine hospitals, including CMMC and Franklin Memorial, to assist with nonemergency patient transfers.

The National Guard members who deployed in December, as well as the federal teams, are scheduled to remain at those facilities through the end of this month.

This comes as the number of COVID hospitalizations statewide remained above 400 for the eighth consecutive day Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, there were 411 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19, 102 of whom were in critical care and 53 of whom were on a ventilator. The seven-day average of hospitalizations was up Wednesday compared to where it stood one week ago, even as the average number of individuals in an intensive care unit decreased slightly during the same period.

At the region’s two largest hospitals, the average number of daily COVID-19 inpatients over the past week was down compared to last week.

Providers at CMMC cared for 27 patients per day on average over the seven-day period ending Tuesday, compared with nearly 34 a week prior.

As of Wednesday, the seven-day average at St. Mary’s was 19, compared with 30 from a week prior.

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