A marquee sign along Central Street in Millinocket informs people where to register for a COVID-19 vaccine on March 26, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

As COVID-19 hospitalizations increase in Maine, those over age 60 have been making up nearly three-quarters of admissions even as that age group leads in vaccinations and a higher share of younger people are being seriously affected.

Those over age 60 make up nearly two-thirds of the Mainers who have received their final COVID-19 vaccination, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. But the average age of hospitalized COVID-19 patients remained above 60 since vaccination efforts began, going from 74 in December to 66 in March, when the most recent data is available.

The increasing hospitalizations and the continuing effect on older Mainers are reminders of the virus’ serious effects on members of that population who have not been vaccinated, even though the state is quickly moving through its effort, with a high among states of 35 percent of people fully vaccinated here, according to a New York Times tracker.

Despite hospitalizations creeping up in April — a 38 percent increase from 74 on the first day of the month to 119 on Thursday — deaths have remained low at 21 so far this month. It is likely an effect of the vaccine campaign, which has dropped hospital admittances by 80 percent since the beginning of the year nationally, the Associated Press reported. Maine saw a similar drop.

Older adults were prioritized in Maine and the country’s vaccination efforts because older people have tended to suffer more severe cases of the virus. Nursing home outbreaks have dropped dramatically after making up the bulk of Maine’s COVID-19 deaths despite just representing 10 percent of cases while outpacing national trends, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Maine, 68 percent of those hospitalized with the virus were above the age of 60 in April 2020. That group made up 70 percent of those admitted in March. But the number dropped drastically since the high mark in December, going from 322 to 91 last month.

In contrast, people under age of 50 made up 5 percent of hospitalizations in April of last year and made up 14 percent of admittances in March. The 18 people in that age group hospitalized last month represented three fewer admittances than in December.

Hospitalization among younger people is increasing nationally but not uniformly in states. New Jersey saw a 31 percent increase in hospitalizations between those aged 20 and 29 in March, while Michigan saw a staggering 633 percent increase in hospitalizations for those aged 30 to 39, according to The Detroit News.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said the increase in younger hospitalizations may not be a huge fluctuation but was concerning because younger people typically experience less severe cases of COVID-19.

While older adults have been prioritized for vaccinations, everyone in that age group is not immunized against the virus, he said. Only 40 percent of Mainers have received their second dose.

According to the federal CDC, people above age 85 are most at risk of getting sick, being hospitalized or dying. The risk decreases in lower age bands. A person’s disease can also be complicated if they have co-occurring health conditions.

Shah pointed specifically to the virus’ effects on the respiratory system, which can include pneumonia and sepsis, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. It can also create long-lasting scarring in the lungs. He also pointed to “long haul” COVID-19 cases, where symptoms can last far beyond the typical two-week infection period.

“When it affects people in an aggressive manner, it affects them in the same and difficult ways,” Shah said.