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Health

As Maine hospitals near breaking point, help arrives from state and feds

Virus Outbreak Maine
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Central Maine Medical Center is seen, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine.

With holiday gatherings just days away and the specter of the highly transmissible omicron variant soon becoming dominant in Maine, health officials are concerned about a post-holiday spike.

Some hospitals are warning that they're already on the edge of a precipice, and the time for Mainers to take action to stem the spread of COVID-19 in their communities grows more limited with each new case.

For weeks now, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been reaching record numbers in Maine. Patients are being boarded in emergency rooms due to a lack of beds. As hospitals grapple with a surge of patients, they're also dealing with a lack of staff.

It's a perennial problem magnified by the pandemic: just last week at Northern Light Health, 36 employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to officials. Northern Light's Dr. James Jarvis says they're drawing reserves where they can, including from nonclinical staff.

"We have started to train nonclinical personnel in abilities to do some clinical activities, including administer vaccines," he says.

And now that the omicron variant has been detected in Maine, Jarvis is worried that the situation will get even worse. It's the dominant strain the U.S., and he says it's only a matter of time before it is here too. Because it spreads so easily, it could lead to more hospitalizations, placing even more strain on hospitals. But Jarvis says the system is already fragile.

"Our health care workers and first responders are tired. We are tired of seeing people needlessly get sick and die from this disease. We remain steadfast in our service to our communities, but we have a limit to our ability to do so. So one more time, I ask for your support of us," he says.

Jarvis is imploring Mainers to take collective responsibility and protect others by wearing masks and getting the vaccine and booster shots. The Maine Medical Association also issued a similar plea Wednesday with an additional recommendation: that businesses statewide require masks for employees and customers. The group, which represents more than 4,000 physicians, says it's worried about a dangerous post-holiday spike.

Maine's Health Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, acknowledged Wednesday that hospitals are under pressure.

"We do anticipate that the current high levels of hospitalization will persist. It could get worse," she says.

But Lambrew points to recent actions by the Mills administration that have freed up 150 beds in hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric facilities to relieve pressure on hospitals.

She says there has been a "slight alleviation" of pressure on hospitals thanks to the deployment of National Guard troops and volunteers as well as recent federal assistance.

"There's more work to be done. We are closely monitoring the situation. We still look forward to additional resources coming our way," she says. "We did welcome President Biden's announcement yesterday of additional options for the state of Maine."

Maine CDC director Nirav Shah, however, says it is too early to determine what omicron will mean for Maine.

Shah says he's encouraged by a new, at-home COVID treatment approved by federal regulators, but cautions it may be some time before the drug is widely available.

The Paxlovid drug produced by Pfizer is an antiviral medication that can be used to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 soon after infection. Shah says the pill is another tool available to doctors, but he tempered his enthusiasm during Wednesday’s CDC briefing.

Shah says he expects to hear in the next several days how many of the initial 65,000 treatments will be sent to Maine.