James Jarvis, senior physician executive of Northern Light Health's COVID-19 response, speaks during a Feb. 1 press conference. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

COVID-19 hospitalizations at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center are at their highest in two months, with most of the people hospitalized at the Bangor facility coming from rural communities.

The 13 people hospitalized at EMMC as of Thursday is the highest number the hospital has seen since Feb. 9, when it was also treating 13 people, according to Northern Light data. Maine has more than quadrupled its number of vaccine doses administered since that time. The number of COVID-19 patients at the Bangor hospital had more than doubled in the past week.

The rise is in line with statewide trends: 123 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Maine hospitals as of Friday, the highest number since Feb. 8, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. The spike in hospitalizations shows that the fight against the virus in Maine is far from over as more infectious variants emerge faster than Mainers are getting inoculated.

Maine has seen the fifth highest increase in new cases of any U.S. state over the last two weeks despite having the highest rate of fully vaccinated people, according to New York Times data that is controlled for population. The Maine CDC reported nearly 400 new cases on Friday.

Maine still doesn’t boast one of the nation’s highest hospitalization rates, according to the New York Times, but it has seen hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents increase at the 11th highest rate among U.S. states over the past two weeks.

Multiple factors seem to be raising Maine’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate, including pandemic fatigue leading Mainers to be less mindful of health protocols and recent travel during spring break, said Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light’s COVID-19 response.

Yet the most significant factor seems to be the spread of more infectious COVID-19 variants. Multiple variants are currently spreading throughout the U.S., hampering efforts to reduce cases even as about half of adults are at least partially vaccinated.

The majority of patients hospitalized at EMMC with COVID-19 are residents of rural communities in counties adjacent to Penobscot County, Jarvis said. He said officials at MaineHealth — which operates several hospitals throughout the state, including Maine Medical Center in Portland — recently told him they had seen a similar rise in hospitalized rural patients.

Several rural vaccination clinics have recently stopped administering new doses amid shrinking demand from those communities. All Mainers 16 and over have been eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine since April 7.

Mainers infected in outbreaks at long-term care facilities once made up a sizable chunk of hospitalizations statewide. Yet with a substantial number of residents and staff members at those facilities now fully vaccinated, the age of those hospitalized has slowly dropped since around January, Jarvis said.

“It is concerning that we’re seeing younger people who are getting sick and often sick enough to need critical care,” said Jarvis, who noted that people under age 50 still do not make up a majority of those hospitalized.

Most people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide did not appear to be vaccinated at all, Jarvis said. He noted that the nationwide infection rate for fully vaccinated people appears to be extremely low. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had identified fewer than 6,000 cases among the 84 million Americans who are fully vaccinated, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Monday.

Jarvis said it would be vital for health officials to focus vaccination efforts on more rural parts of Maine, where he said communities are often under-served when it comes to health care and vaccine hesitancy tends to be higher than in urban areas. That hesitancy might have only grown after the CDC advised states to stop administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after reports of extremely rare blood clots. The state had begun targeting Johnson & Johnson doses to more remote areas of the state before the pause.

Jarvis said such outreach efforts may involve health officials administering vaccines at pop-up clinics in rural communities, including schools and businesses. The goal is to reach people who are willing to get vaccinated but are more likely to get the shot if it is convenient.

“The single best thing we can do is all get vaccinated — there’s no doubt about it,” Jarvis said. “That’s our path out of this pandemic.”