PORTLAND, Maine — The latest data from Maine's CDC show a record-high number of people in hospitals across the state with COVID-19.
Three hundred twenty-seven people are in hospital beds with the virus, a pandemic high. One hundred eight are in critical care, and 39 are on a ventilator. The state reports just 55 critical care beds remain in the state. Hospitals can "flex" beds into ICU beds, so long as the equipment and staff are available.
"The nurses are tired. It takes a toll emotionally, physically on the nurses," Michelle Dunning, RN, a COVID-19 nurse at one Northern Light Health hospital, said.
Nurses at Maine's largest hospital systems are exhausted. Northern Light Health recently released video of its COVID-19 wards, including interviews with nurses. Visitors, including journalists and family members, are not allowed in the COVID wards right now.
"It's emotional. They're tearful, and a lot of them are saying goodbye because they don't know if this is going to be the last time they see their loved ones," Dunning said. "They're scared. We're scared and worried for them."
The majority of patients in hospital beds are not fully vaccinated, according to Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah. In ICUs, that proportion of unvaccinated patients is even higher.
"At some points, it's been 100% of people in the largest ICUs in Maine who are not vaccinated," Shah said during the state's most recent COVID-19 briefing on November 17.
"We're seeing patients that are in their 20s, 30s, that are unvaccinated and on ventilators and otherwise healthy," Dunning said.
Many of those are being put on ventilators in hopes of keeping them alive.
"The number one thing that they say before we have to send them down is that they wish they would have gotten vaccinated," Dayna DeTour, RN and a COVID-19 nurse at one Northern Light Health hospital, said.
Shah and DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said during the last briefing that there are no plans as of now to reinstate a statewide civil emergency that would include mask mandates. Instead, leaders are leaving those choices up to individual business owners and people.
"It's shifted from a public policy responsibility to an individual responsibility," Lambrew said during the briefing.
"The situation that we are in, and the risk that people, is on some level, an elective risk," Shah said. "You need not put yourself and your family at risk for COVID-19. If you're deeply concerned about ending up in the hospital, ending up in an ICU bed, ending up on a ventilator, you have a tool now that we did not have a year ago, and those are the vaccines."
Then, a post-holiday surge: 825 people tested positive on January 12. At the time, it was a record high. The day before Thanksgiving of 2021, the state reported 1,000 new cases in a single day, with concerns growing that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed.
Just 55 critical care beds are open in the entire state.
"Sometimes it feels like there's no light at the end of this tunnel," DeTour said.
Although the U.S. CDC ranks Maine as the third-most vaccinated state in the country, the spread is uneven. More than 70% of people have a final dose in Cumberland, Knox, and Lincoln counties. In Oxford, Franklin, and Somerset Counties, less than 60% of people have a final dose. Those least-vaccinated counties also have some of the state's highest rates of new infections.
"I know people are tired. We're all tired. But there is one way out of this pandemic, and it is vaccination," said Lambrew.
On Friday, nearly 68% of Maine's entire population has a final dose of the vaccine.