In this March 13, 2020, file photo, medical personnel discuss patients that had been admitted for testing for the coronavirus at the entrance Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Maine are relatively stable. But emergency departments are seeing a change in the type of patients with the disease: they’re younger.

People ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s are going to ERs with symptoms that, in some cases, are severe enough to require hospitalization.

At Maine Medical Center in Portland, Dr. Nate Mick first noticed a shift in age among COVID-19 patients in the ER a couple weeks ago. Some of these patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s have mild symptoms, like a cough or sore throat. Others have trouble breathing — so much so that they wind up in the intensive care unit.

“That is one of the things that is most striking about the last couple of weeks. I think anybody that gets COVID severe enough to end up in the hospital kind of hits you as a health care provider. It definitely hits a little closer to home when you start seeing people your own age end up with COVID severe enough to be hospitalized,” Mick said.

Mick said these younger patients at Maine Med generally don’t have underlying conditions. They’re not considered high risk for COVID.

So, why are they getting sick? Mick said there are several reasons. The virus is evolving. New variants are more contagious and can cause more severe disease. Another reason, he said, is that fewer young people have been vaccinated.

“This virus will seek out the leaks in your roof, just like water will. And if you plug one leak by vaccinating the at-risk elderly and the at-risk nursing home patient, the virus will seek out the other hole,” he said.

Dr. James Jarvis of Northern Light Health said the uptick in younger patients with COVID-19 is happening across Maine.

“Right now, we’re seeing an increase in the number of hospitalizations for people who are under the age of 40, and in fact have several 20-year-olds across the state who right now are needing critical care,” he said.

In contrast to what Maine Medical Center is seeing, Jarvis said many of the younger patients with severe complications from COVID-19 that he’s aware of do have underlying conditions: “Most of them, it has been obesity. And so we know that obesity is one of the greater risk factors for severe disease from COVID.”

Along with the uptick in younger people seriously ill with COVID-19, there are also more asymptomatic patients, said Faye Collins, the director of nursing for Maine Med’s emergency department.

“The patients we admit — we test all of them for COVID, whether or not they have any symptoms. We’re seeing increases of those tests coming back positive too when they’re admitted for something totally apart from that,” she said.

These increases are coinciding with a rise in case numbers in Maine. The seven-day average for daily cases is 427, as of Thursday morning. That’s more than double what it was a month ago. Collins suspects that people are tired of wearing masks and distancing. She said hospital staff are exhausted, too.

“They’re physically tired, they’re morally tired, they’re psychologically tired. We really want it to be over. And now that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, we don’t want people to let down their guard quite yet,” she said.

And health care providers are imploring people to get the vaccine. They said the fact that fewer older people are requiring hospitalization is evidence of just how effective it is.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.