Hospitalizations for COVID-19 rose sharply in Maine for a second straight week and have hit their highest level since May 31.
Across the state, 93 people were hospitalized with the disease Thursday. The number of acute COVID-19 patients in intensive care hit 49 statewide, the highest level since May 10 and comparable to the levels seen during much of the winter surge. At the state’s two largest hospitals, Maine Medical Center in Portland and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, about 80 percent of all inpatients who have tested positive for the disease are in intensive care.
This summer’s pattern stands in stark contrast to the summer of 2020. Though vaccines had not yet been created, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care last summer rarely hit double digits and the overall statewide inpatient count for people with the disease stood in the teens for weeks at a time. But the delta variant, which is two to three times more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain and appears to make those hospitalized with it sicker, has changed the dynamic, just when Maine hospitals ordinarily face their busiest months, with the seasonal population increase.
“This is a really different pandemic than last summer,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, parent entity of Maine Med, which she said has seen record overall occupancy levels over the past week. “It is much, much, much more contagious.”
MaineHealth has three pediatric inpatients with acute cases of COVID-19, Mills said, whereas the hospital network had only seen a handful of such cases over the previous 16 months of the pandemic, and never more than one at a time. “Across the country we’re seeing a lot more kids with COVID, and that worries me when we’re heading into going back to school.”
The sharpest increase in COVID-19 patients overall continues to be at EMMC, which serves as the major treatment center for the northern and eastern half of the state. The Bangor hospital – which had no COVID-19 inpatients at all for several days in late July – went from treating two inpatients on July 30 to 13 a week ago to 24 on Thursday, the most since Jan. 20.
Over 80 percent of those inpatients are unvaccinated, and many are from rural areas where vaccination rates are low, said Dr. James Jarvis, physician incident commander for EMMC’s parent entity, Northern Light Health.
“Many of these individuals are too sick to remain at smaller hospitals and are therefore being sent to EMMC,” Jarvis said. “We are operating on the assumption that this surge is still building and that we’re on the upswing, not the downswing.”
New COVID-19 cases are rising in Aroostook, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington counties, though they leveled off in Penobscot County, where EMMC is located. Hospitalization trends usually shadow new case trends by one to two weeks because of the typical onset time of the worst effects of the disease among acutely affected patients.
EMMC was treating an average of 18.4 COVID-19 inpatients a day during the week ending Thursday, more than double last week’s daily average of 8.6 and nearly five times the level of the week before. It is still less than half the midwinter peak of the pandemic here, when it was caring for an average of 51.9 COVID-19 inpatients a day, the heaviest weekly burden of any hospital in the state yet.
COVID-19 inpatient counts also are growing at Maine Med, which treated an average of 13.6 a day for the week ending Thursday, compared to 10.3 the previous week. Southern Maine Health Care Medical Center in Biddeford saw a rapid spike, going from an average of 4.1 COVID-19 inpatients a day last week to 8.1 this week.
WORST LEVELS SINCE SPRING
Several other hospitals this week also saw their worst burdens since the spring, including Portland’s Mercy Hospital, Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield and Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth.
Waldo County General in Belfast, located in what has recently been the worst affected county in the state, had its heaviest week of the entire pandemic, with an average daily COVID-19 inpatient count of 3.3 a day, up from 1 last week.
MaineGeneral in Augusta has bucked the trend, with COVID-19 inpatient counts trending down for the past two weeks: from 3.7 to 3.3 to 2.3 per day this week.
Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston also had its confirmed daily average case load drop – from 4.7 last week to 2.1 for the six days ending Wednesday – but also reported unprecedented numbers of inpatients with “suspected” COVID-19 infections, an average of 12.5 each day.
CMMC spokesperson Ann Kim did not have additional information on the unusual number of suspected cases, which was far higher than in any previous week.
Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator in that they typically occur one to three weeks after a person is exposed to the disease. But unlike other metrics, hospitalizations are not dependent on who and how many people were tested. They can end in three ways: recovery, death or transfer to another facility.
The Press Herald compiled data from the hospitals and hospital networks. The data does not include outpatients or inpatients suspected of having the virus but who were never tested.