ELLSWORTH — At a somber press briefing given by Northern Light Health on Dec. 22, Dr. James Jarvis pleaded with the public to follow safety protocols for COVID-19 and especially to get vaccinated and boosted against the virus.
As of Dec. 22, there were 70 people receiving inpatient care at Northern Light hospitals, Jarvis reported. Four patients were at Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital and one patient was at Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital. Jarvis said the number of hospitalizations is led by people who are unvaccinated. He noted that the average time for hospital stays is increasing, and he is noticing younger populations needing to be hospitalized.
He also said that community transmission of the virus is putting hospital staff at risk. Last week, 36 employees tested positive for COVID-19, further stretching an already taxed staffing crunch.
“If we don’t all take this seriously … someone may die because the right bed in the right place in the right time may not be available,” Jarvis said. “Our health-care workers and first responders are tired.”
He asked for support from the public in mitigating the spread of the virus so that health-care workers can be available for patients who need emergency care.
“We need you now more than ever,” he said.
To help alleviate the stressed health care system, President Biden announced on Dec. 21 that Maine would receive assistance from federal ambulance crews.
In other federal developments, the Food and Drug Administration approved on Dec. 22 Paxlovid by drug manufacturer Pfizer, the first antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 at home.
While it is a welcome development by health officials, the supply of the drug to the state is unknown, as national supply will start out relatively limited.
At the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) weekly press briefing Dec. 22, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah estimated that between now and February, about 265,000 courses of the drug will be available nationally.
At that same briefing, Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said that hospitals throughout the state had experienced some alleviation from recent efforts, like activating members of the Maine National Guard.
Additionally, Shah reported five COVID-related deaths, with one being a person from Hancock County.
He said that 65 percent of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are not fully vaccinated. Regarding the severity of those patients’ hospital stays, Shah said that 91 percent of patients in Northern Light intensive care unit beds were unvaccinated and 92 percent of the Northern Light patients on ventilators were not vaccinated.
On Dec. 22, the highly transmissible omicron variant made up about 3 percent of COVID-19 cases in Maine, Shah reported. Northern Light Health’s Jarvis said it would likely become the state’s dominant variant. Nationally, omicron is already accounting for about 73 percent of COVID cases.
While Shah noted at a previous briefing that omicron may not cause as severe symptoms as past variants, he noted Dec. 22 that it was too early to tell the severity of omicron.
He said that regardless of its severity, it is a more contagious variant, which is likely to lead to more hospitalizations and greater strain on the health care system.
Another downside of omicron is that only one of the three monoclonal antibody treatments used for COVID-19 is effective in treating it.
Amid the holidays, Shah shared similar advice he gave leading up to Thanksgiving, including masking if not everybody in attendance at a holiday gathering is vaccinated, opening windows and testing before attending.
With the surge in COVID-19 cases causing strain on the accessibility of tests, Biden announced this week that the administration plans to provide 500 million at-home tests that people can order to their homes for free, with deliveries beginning in January.
Locally, Healthy Acadia announced it had free, rapid antigen self-tests available to residents of Hancock and Washington counties while supplies last.
Shah asked that people also show grace and gratitude to a number of people in the community, including health-care workers, public health workers, volunteers helping in the effort against COVID-19 and members of the Maine National Guard. His list concluded with showing grace to people in one’s life who may have differing perspectives on the ongoing pandemic.