AUGUSTA, Maine — Younger, unvaccinated Mainers are being hospitalized with COVID-19 in greater numbers as widespread vaccinations have yet to put a dent in statewide hospitalizations, the state’s top health official said Wednesday.
The number of patients hospitalized with the virus was mostly flat over the past week, sitting at 122 as of Wednesday, but the seven-day average is still up nearly 70 percent compared with a month ago, when the number of people hospitalized on a given day dropped as low as 68. Deaths have yet to show a similar increase, likely reflecting lower infection rates among older Mainers most likely to be vaccinated.
The increase comes despite Maine’s significant COVID-19 vaccination efforts over the past few months. Though the number of vaccines administered daily has slowed in the past few weeks as the state works to improve access and combat hesitancy, Maine still leads all U.S. states in terms of the share of its population fully vaccinated at 47 percent, according to the New York Times.
Rates vary widely by age group. More than 80 percent of people aged 60 and older are vaccinated compared with only 30 percent of people under 40. So far, those rates have not been enough to slow statewide infection numbers — which remain in the hundreds daily — or hospitalizations, which over the last week have been at their highest level since early February, when they were declining after a post-holiday surge.
The increase in hospitalizations is mostly attributable to younger patients who had yet to be vaccinated, Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said. He also pointed to the spread of virus variants that are responsible for hundreds of documented cases in Maine and are known to cause more severe illness and make people more likely to require ventilators.
“Younger people are now being hospitalized at higher rates, and almost all of them are unvaccinated,” Shah said. “So what this is a function of is folks not being vaccinated and not taking COVID seriously, and unfortunately getting sick and ending up in the ICU or on a ventilator.”
The Maine CDC has also noticed a trend of younger people coming into hospitals who were much sicker than older patients and ended up with longer hospital stays, which might have been avoidable had they come in sooner, Shah said. Those longer stays inflate inpatient data even if fewer people are being admitted with COVID-19.
Shah said the state was aware of just one case of a fully vaccinated individual being hospitalized for the virus, adding that the individual had several pre-existing medical conditions. Maine has seen 207 so-called “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases in which a fully vaccinated person tests positive for the virus, according to state data. That total amounts to only 0.03 percent of fully vaccinated individuals here.
So far, coronavirus death rates have not increased dramatically over the past month despite the increased hospitalizations, likely reflecting that the disease remains most deadly for older people. People over the age of 60 have accounted for all 12 of Maine’s reported COVID-19 deaths from the past two weeks and 93 percent of deaths here since the start of the pandemic.
Severely ill patients have dispersed across the state, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Wednesday. Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, which saw cases double in late April, was back down to just eight patients earlier this week. Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response, said the virus remained “very spread out across the state and across our health system.”
Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston saw a record 19 patients in intensive care units earlier this week. Virus cases have remained high in Androscoggin County over the past few weeks, but Shah warned against reading too much into hospitalizations and the presence of severe illness in a given area, noting that severely ill patients from rural areas were largely being transported to the major hospitals where they could receive ICU care.
“The risk is all across the state,” Shah said, “but what we’ve seen is that, again, [hospitalizations] strongly continue right now to be correlated with the folks who are not vaccinated, and folks that really — had they been vaccinated — probably would not have ended up there.”