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3 things you need to know from Maine's COVID-19 briefing: Omicron variant, impact on hospitals, and booster appointments

Maine's CDC director said it is too early to tell if the vaccines are any less effective against the omicron variant.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's Center for Disease Control and Department of Health and Human Services leaders said we need more data to know the severity and impact of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in Wednesday's briefing.

Omicron variant 

The first confirmed case of the variant is in California, and Maine is actively sequencing positive samples to see when it appears in the state.

The three main questions:

  1. Is it more contagious than previous variants?
  2. Does it cause more severe symptoms that could lead to hospitalization?
  3. Do the current vaccines protect against it?

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah's answer to all three, generally, is: we need more data to have a clear picture.

"That's the scientific question that is underway right now, and some virologists and immunologists with whom I've had the opportunity to speak within the past couple of days have suggested that our body's immune system is so remarkably resilient that they believe that there will be some degree of protection from the current vaccines," Shah said. "Just how high degree of protection that is, that's the question on the table."

Shah encouraged all adults to get the COVID-19 vaccine or a booster to protect themselves. He said it is more critical now than ever to wear a mask indoors in public places and get the vaccine or a booster.

Shah said we cannot forget about the delta variant, which is causing record-high cases and hospital patient numbers.

Record-high COVID-19 patients stretch hospitals thin

Maine recorded a new pandemic-high of patients in the hospital with the virus: 344. Ninety-nine people are in critical care, and 49 are on ventilators, which is also a record.

Public health leaders, including DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, said Wednesday that capacity to treat the critically ill is nearing its max. Forty-five adult critical care beds are available in the state

One issue clogging Maine's hospital beds is older patients ready to leave the hospital who need care at a nursing facility, but who cannot get a spot in one due to a workforce shortage.

Essentially, long-term care facilities do not have enough staff to accept more patients. That leaves some who need that level of care receiving it in a hospital instead.

Commissioner Lambrew said the state is working to shift some hospital staff to long-term care facilities to "decompress" the hospital load and open more beds for COVID patients.

"We're no longer in the planning phase. We're in the execution phase because we have seen these record-high numbers of people in hospitals with COVID-19," Lambrew said. "We have been working with our hospitals primarily because our hospital capacity is high as well as with our nursing facilities to load balance out our patients in Maine."

Tuesday, MaineHealth's chief health improvement officer, Dr. Dora Mills, told NEWS CENTER Maine that some patients in emergency departments have to be treated in hallways due to the number of people who need care. She also said the total number of patients being treated for COVID in hospitals is higher than what the state reports because of how the federal government requires hospitals to tally COVID patients: only those who are still contagious get recorded. Others, who are no longer contagious, but still being treated for symptoms, are still in those hospitals.

Commissioner Lambrew said the state plans to intensify efforts with the hospitals and nursing facilities in the near future.

Booster complications

Some people are having a hard time getting a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are having appointments canceled, Shah confirmed Tuesday. He said he spoke to Walgreens officials about the issue and that they told him it was due to staffing issues.

Shah encouraged people to go to either the York County Emergency Management site in Sanford or the site at the Auburn Mall.

He said those sites have been doing up to 700 shots per day. He said the state has an ample supply of the vaccine.

"We know the demand is out there, we've heard those concerns, and we're working to address them," Shah said. 

Shah said the state is also working to offer more one-off large-scale pop-up clinics, like the one at a McDonald's in Waterville last week that administered 200 shots.

He said anyone 18 and older should get a booster.

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