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Janet Mills activates National Guard to help handle Maine's surge of COVID patients

In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills is activating the National Guard to alleviate pressure on Maine hospitals that are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients. The crush of patients is pushing many hospitals to at or near capacity. And with a surge in cases expected to continue through the holidays, some hospitals say they're running out of options to handle the load.

Open beds are hard to come by at Maine Medical Center. Patients are being boarded in the ER for days and even weeks while they wait for a room, said Dr. Christine Hein. Other patients are being treated in chairs and hallways. And some days, she said, the hospital runs out of isolation rooms for patients who come to the ER with COVID.

"And it's coming to a point that I think we all fear," Hein said. "We're going to be making some of the difficult choices that we were concerned about at the beginning of the pandemic."

Maine Medical Center ran out of critical care beds on Monday, forcing it to divert patients elsewhere. But smaller hospitals, which have helped absorb the surge of COVID patients, are often full too. Dr. Ryan Knapp of Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway said they've been running at near or over capacity for the past several weeks.

"Just as of this morning, 23 of our 25 beds are filled, and the only reason we have a couple of beds is because we've had a couple people die in the past 24 hours," Knapp said.

Northern Light Health officials say their hospitals are also boarding patients in ERs as they wait for beds. And Dr. James Jarvis said starting Friday, Eastern Maine Medical Center will postpone non-urgent surgeries on a case by case basis.

"It would not take many more patients needing to access care for us to start talking about similar stresses that MaineHealth is experiencing right now," Jarvis said.

The strain across the MaineHealth system is prompting its largest hospital, Maine Medical Center, to take further measures to boost capacity. Non-urgent surgeries, like joint replacements, which had been reduced by 30% will now be cut by 50%. The hospital is also converting six operating rooms into critical care beds on top of the six it previously converted in order to redeploy staff. MaineHealth CEO Andrew Mueller said staff is trying to think creatively to accommodate the surge.

"But we're running out of straws. There are not a lot of great options left," Mueller said.

The situation is at a tipping point, said Gov. Mills.

"And that's why today I'm activating additional members of the National Guard under state orders," Mills said.

Starting next week and through the end of January, up to 75 members will be activated. Mills said some will be sent to nursing facilities to alleviate the bottleneck of patients in hospitals waiting to be discharged. Others will help administer monoclonal antibodies to prevent people with COVID from becoming severely ill and needing hospitalization. Administration officials say they expect support in these non-clinical roles will free up dozens of beds. But Mills says she's also requested federal help, in the form of COVID-19 Surge Response Teams.

"If approved, teams of federal clinicians, including physicians, nurses, and certified nursing assistants, hopefully will be there to supplement existing staff and members of the National Guard to provide care for those with COVID-19," Mills said.

But hospital officials said what would help the most is for people to get vaccinated. The COVID patients they see now are sicker. And they're younger. Some are in their 20s and 30s with no other underlying conditions. And most patients, says Dr. Christine Hein of Maine Med, are unvaccinated.

"When you are faced with delivering the news that somebody has severe, advanced COVID, the first thing they ask you is, 'Ok, so what's the plan?' And the answer is pretty disappointing, because the answer is the plan was, you hopefully could have gotten a vaccine that would have prevented this severe disease," Hein said.

As hospitals face a steep curve in cases that could persist for weeks, MaineHealth CEO Andrew Mueller revived an early message from the pandemic. He urged Mainers to do their part to flatten the curve.