A new variant of COVID-19 is surging in Maine and throughout the Northeast, but the state’s top health official does not expect cases and hospitalizations to soar like they did when the first omicron variant emerged last winter.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the immunity level in the population, estimated to be 96% in Maine because of vaccinations, previous infection or both, provides a protective shield against COVID-19 variants.

That includes the XBB 1.5, a new subvariant of omicron that is now estimated to represent 75% of new cases in the Northeast, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Maine, a surveillance report released Tuesday shows that 20% of all tested samples were the XBB 1.5 variant. Shah said the data from the report is a few weeks old and he expects that levels of the XBB 1.5 variant in Maine are likely much higher. Nationwide, 41% of new cases are projected to be the XBB 1.5 variant.

Shah said the COVID-19 vaccines – especially the omicron-targeting booster shot – hold up well against XBB and previous variants.

“Any new variant is going to have a pretty big boulder to push up a hill to have a repeat of last year,” Shah said.

Even so, he said Mainers who have not yet received a booster shot should do so. Boosters are available at many locations, including pharmacies and primary care doctor’s offices.


During the 2021-22 winter, COVID-19 hospitalizations strained capacity, peaking at 436 patients statewide on Jan. 13, 2022. The delta variant wave was followed by the emergence of the more-transmissible omicron variant. A series of omicron subvariants have continued to dominate ever since, although subsequent peaks in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maine have been much lower than what was experienced when omicron first arrived in January 2022.

On Tuesday, a total of 147 hospital patients statewide tested positive for COVID, up from 118 two weeks ago, representing one incubation period. Some experts have predicted an increase in COVID-positive hospitalized patients in the days and weeks after the holidays because of travel and family gatherings.

Shah said the XBB 1.5 subvariant has an advantage over previous variants by being even more transmissible. But “based on what we know, it does not cause COVID-19 disease any more severe than what we’ve contended with before,” Shah said.

The new variant also is spreading at the same time hospitals are treating patients infected with the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Maine hospitals have reported that cases of RSV, which especially affects young children, have declined in recent weeks.

And the Maine CDC reported Tuesday that influenza cases continue to decline, with 1,879 new cases for the week ending Dec. 30, compared to 2,881 the previous week. It was the second week in a row that the number of new influenza cases went down in Maine.


However, the U.S. CDC is still categorizing Maine as having a high rate of flu circulating. And influenza hospitalizations increased from 87 to 95 for the week ending Dec. 30.

Shah said influenza and COVID-19 are similar in that the viruses are constantly evolving. For instance, scientists tailor the annual influenza vaccine by attempting to predict what strains of influenza will be circulating during flu season. For COVID-19, scientists crafted the bivalent booster to better protect against omicron strains.

“This carousel of new variants is just how viruses evolve,” Shah said. “This is not unique to COVID-19, but is true of virtually every seasonal virus.”

A rise in COVID hospitalizations, although not a dramatic spike, has been expected. Public health experts were expecting a rise in COVID-19 cases this winter, not only because of potential new variants, but because seasonal viruses tend to circulate more in winter, when more people gather indoors and come together for holiday gatherings.

“Most public health officials would have expected an increase in COVID-19 cases, even before we knew about XBB.1.5,” Andrew Pekosz, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN on Tuesday. “So whether the increases in COVID cases that are occurring during the holidays are occurring because of the social interactions that people have had or whether they’re specifically related to XBB.1.5 is still something that isn’t clear. Both of those things are probably contributing.”

The combination of the new variant and holiday travel and gatherings, as well as the presence of flu and other seasonal viruses, has led to more recommendations that people wear masks when in public indoor spaces.

Some school districts in Massachusetts are recommending students wear masks in schools, while Philadelphia schools are mandating masks as students return from the holidays.

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