WATERVILLE — As the threat of the omicron variant of COVID-19 subsides, the goal in Maine is to manage and contain the disease so it is no longer a crisis, according to the state’s top public health official.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re not going to eliminate COVID,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, told the Waterville Rotary Club on Monday. “It’s just going to be a fact of all of our lives, and we’re each going to have to make decisions based on it.”

The state’s response to the coronavirus must be to minimize the number of people who fall severely ill, requiring intensive care, and “keep our hospitals from overflowing,” Shah said during a Zoom presentation to local Rotarians.

The most important tools the state has are vaccinations and booster shots, Shah said, urging anyone who has not received a booster to do so as soon as possible.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

He explained how data shows vaccines are most effective as three-shot regimens, in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna shots, or a two-shot regimen in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Maine hospitals were able to withstand the omicron wave and were not hit as hard as those in many other states, mainly because of the state’s high vaccination rate of 78%, Shah said. Omicron still led, however, to record numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

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“That led to, by far, the most significant surges that we have seen throughout the pandemic,” Shah said. “The highest number of cases, the highest number of hospitalizations and, sadly, some of the highest numbers of deaths we have seen.”

The Maine CDC reported 173 patients were hospitalized statewide Saturday with the coronavirus, down from 181 on Friday. The numbers compare favorably with the 436 patients who were hospitalized Jan. 13, a pandemic high.

Twenty-two additional deaths were reported Saturday, bringing the total to 2,064 statewide since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Shah said he is encouraged by how the omicron wave has receded, noting that as of Monday, 168 people with the virus were at Maine hospitals, with 13 on ventilators. However, he said the state CDC is still on the lookout for new variants and is preparing for future pandemics that are sure to occur.

“It will not be long before something else makes its way to the United States, let alone to Maine,” Shah said. “So we are trying to see what else is out there that we can prepare and plan for.”

On Monday, Shah wrote on Twitter that two cases of the omicron BA.2 variant, thought to be more contagious than the original omicron strain, were detected by researchers at The Jackson Laboratory who monitor for virus mutations in Maine.

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Shah said he hopes Maine’s high vaccination rate will allow the state to withstand surges in new variants.

The Maine CDC is looking at whether to update recommendations for masking at schools as some districts drop mask mandates on their own.

Shah said the state CDC is taking a cautious approach because students are returning this week from winter break.

“We want to take a look to see if there’s stability now that we are starting that post-vacation week,” Shah said, “and see what schools look like before we make any recommendations on our own.”

Shah added that evaluating COVID-19 restrictions requires a balancing act to ensure the health of Maine residents. However, he said, Maine now has few statewide restrictions in place.

“We want folks to get back to normal,” Shah said, “but we also don’t want to leave behind those who are immunocompromised, medically vulnerable or otherwise disabled because they remain at a high risk.”

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He said Maine is moving into a more endemic phase, where the virus will be with us and will have to be managed, like the flu.

“Reasonable people have and will disagree over when COVID is done,” Shah said. “But it’s not going away. The question is just, ‘What does it mean to say that we’re done?’”

He said researchers are working on an all-in-one flu and COVID-19 vaccine.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s the kind of thing that is like your flu shot — once a year you need to get it,” Shah said.

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