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'It's Only November' — Maine Hospitals Are Bracing For A Long Winter Of COVID-19 Patients

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Medical personnel discuss patients that had been admitted for testing for the coronavirus at the entrance Central Maine Medical Center on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine.

A few weeks ago, Maine began to see record numbers of COVID-19 cases. Now, it’s seeing a record number of hospitalizations.

There are 105 people receiving inpatient care on Tuesday. A month ago, it was only about a dozen.

Before the recent surge, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor went almost four weeks without having a single COVID-19 patient admitted to the hospital. As of today Tuesday, there are 24.

“Each day we are seeing record numbers of COVID-positive patients,” says Dr. James Jarvis, who helps oversee the hospital’s response to the pandemic.

It’s already opened a second unit for COVID-19 patients, and a third is possible if necessary.

At MaineHealth, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joan Boomsma says the system’s hospitals are also seeing a substantial increase in patients.

“It feels a little right now like sometimes things feel in the heart of the winter when we have a very bad respiratory season. But it’s only November,” she says.

Boomsma says several of MaineHealth’s hospitals are nearing capacity.

So far, the situation is manageable. Patients can be routed to hospitals with open beds. But if the upward trend continues, Boomsma says MaineHealth may have to dial back certain services, such as elective surgeries.

“We could be facing in the next few weeks the need to start limiting procedures that could safely be delayed. We could get there if things don’t start turning around,” she says.

How quickly Maine can turn a corner is uncertain. In the meantime, Dr. Al Teng, chief of critical care at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, is working to stay ahead of the surge.

“I anticipate that in December, one or two weeks after Thanksgiving, that the cases could really be increasing in all parts of Maine,” he says.

That’s why CMMC has doubled its bed count for COVID-19 patients, which are currently about half full. But Teng says if cases keep climbing, the biggest constraint may not be beds, but staffing.

To ensure a stable workforce, CMMC is training more nurses to care for COVID-19 patients. But a complicating factor is the rampant community transmission across the state, which leaves more opportunity for staff to be exposed to the virus. And that can put them out of commission for two weeks if they need to isolate or quarantine.

Maine Medical Center recently had to scale back to emergency surgeries only in its cardiothoracic unit after several staff became symptomatic.

“I don’t really worry about getting sick myself,” says David Wall, a respiratory therapist at Maine Medical Center who’s among the staffers who care for COVID-19 patients. “I mean, I don’t really want to get sick, but I worry about bringing something home to my family.”

Wall says the hospital has done an outstanding job training and supporting employees, and he feels safer in the COVID unit than he does at the grocery store. His concern is more about the sheer number of people who are becoming infected.

“But I feel confident we can handle it. That my colleagues and I will get through it,” he says.

At Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, ICU nurse Lisa Oliver says she also feels good about how the hospital is managing COVID-19 patients. She just wants to avoid surge levels that could compromise care.

“The patients that are coming in, you develop a rapport with them. And we love taking care of them and we want to see what’s best for them and see positive outcomes and it gets stressful when there are negative outcomes,” she says.

Even though hospital officials are eyeing the rise in COVID-19 numbers with apprehension, Jarvis says of Northern Light Health’s plans have been in development for months, so there isn’t the sense of alarm that there was at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I think our preparedness has really been the key that’s kind of kept us down from our same level of panic that we had back in March and April,” he says.

But Boomsma says if numbers continue to grow, MaineHealth’s hospitals could become just as overwhelmed as those in other states.

“If this thing post-Thanksgiving leads to another 20 or 30 or 40 hospitalizations across the state, I think we are going to find ourselves in a place where things are really starting to get difficult,” she says.

The people in hospitals with COVID-19 are very sick, Boomsma says. And they’re not just the elderly.