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'Highest risk time' of pandemic for those unvaccinated against COVID-19 amid Delta variant surge, doctors say

MaineHealth's Dr. Dora Anne Mills said the majority of patients in Maine hospitals are unvaccinated and under the age of 50.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine's COVID-19 cases have been increasing steadily over the last six weeks fueled primarily by the Delta variant, according to data from the state CDC.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are slowly going back up. As of Wednesday, there were 60 people in Maine hospitals with the virus, which public health leaders say is almost all related to the Delta variant.

"This Delta variant has the ability as a sharpshooter—it finds anyone who is unvaccinated," said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, one of the state's largest hospital systems.

"It's a concern for us and we don't want to see those numbers go back up again," said Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 senior physician executive at Northern Light Health.

MaineHealth leaders recently screened 51 positive COVID-19 test results, and that all of them came back showing indications of the Delta variant.

They say the majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated and under age 50.

"We are seeing a number of people who are fully vaccinated who are getting illness but not sick enough to be hospitalized or die or get more serious illness," said Dr. Mills. 

Wednesday, 217 more people tested positive for the virus, the highest single-day count since May.

Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said this count is part of a nearly six-week upward trend in new cases that he called "concerning" in an e-mail to NEWS CENTER Maine.

"We have to realize this is a very different pandemic than it was a year ago," said Dr. Mills. "For people who aren't vaccinated, this is the highest risk time of the pandemic."

The COVID-19 transmission map that the U.S. CDC puts out shows what level of community spread each county is experiencing. The U.S. CDC and Maine CDC recommend that people in any county where transmission is "substantial" or "high" should wear masks in indoor, public places regardless of vaccination status.

The counties that meet the threshold of "substantial" or "high" transmission sometimes change daily.

"The guidance is designed to provide tools that people can use to make informed decisions," said Long in an e-mail. "Getting vaccinated is like putting snow tires on your car in winter. It makes things safer during the entire season. But when the weather worsens, we drive more slowly because the risk is higher. Maine people adapt well to winter by being prepared for sudden changes. The same could apply to COVID-19. Get vaccinated to reduce your risk, then consider carrying a mask with you so you are prepared for potential changes. If you are at greater risk, avoid situations – large indoor public gatherings, for example – that could elevate your risk."

Health officials are urging people to focus on four important prevention steps:

  • Get the vaccine
  • Distance
  • Stay outside if possible
  • Wear masks

Mills said at MaineHealth, the company reinstituted masking policies even in offices that do not provide healthcare.

Governor Janet Mills recently said she is "seriously considering" a state mandate for healthcare workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.