Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, last week compared the current number of omicron cases to a tsunami.
He’s not wrong. Cases are on the rise. On each day last week, the daily confirmed case count hovered around 1,500. But, as Shaw noted, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The number of tests coming into the CDC lab has tripled since the Christmas holiday. The spike is causing a backlog at the state processing lab as the lab techs struggle to keep up with the volume of tests that need to be processed. There were an estimated 45,000 tests still waiting to be processed last week. Given the number of people being tested each day, it doesn’t look like that total will decrease anytime soon.
Keep in mind that the daily numbers do not include people who diagnosed themselves with at-home tests or those who did not seek medical attention. Accurate, real-time case data is not available like it was just a month ago, so how are we to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic now?
According to health care professionals, one metric that can help tell the story of the disease is the hospitalization rate. But with such a fast-spreading virus, even that metric is not as illuminating as it once was.
As of Monday, 427 Mainers were hospitalized for COVID-19, with 100 people in critical care units and 48 on ventilators. Those numbers are near-record numbers. With few exceptions, those who end up in critical care are the unvaccinated. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease.
As we are finding out, the vaccine is not as successful at keeping people from contracting the omicron variant as it had been with previous variants, but vaccines remain the best tool we have to keep people from becoming critically ill. And studies show that those who have been boosted fare even better.
Masking is also more important than ever at slowing the spread of the virus. While a federal mandate would be our best bet, it doesn’t seem as if the Biden administration has the stomach for such a move. Instead, cities and towns across the state are putting mask mandates back in place. In Bar Harbor last week, the Town Council passed a resolution asking for citizens to mask, but it is not a mandate. If you were to go to Portland or Brunswick today, however, you’d be required to wear one.
Cloth masks are out, say public health officials. They do not provide enough protection. N95 masks offer better protection, filtering out approximately 95 percent of virus in the air, but they can be difficult to find. The federal government is working on a plan to provide them to citizens, but it will take some time to sort out the logistics. The masks, which will be free to those who want them, will be distributed through pharmacies and should be available as early as next week.
In the meantime, those unable to find high-quality N95 masks are encouraged to wear a cloth mask over a surgical mask for added protection.
As we enter our third year of the pandemic, most of us are, as they say, “over it.” But the virus shows little sign of slowing down. We have no choice but to remain vigilant and continue with the measures that we know work.