Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health's COVID-19 response, listens to speakers at a Bangor School Committee meeting on a mask requirement for schools on Aug. 18, 2021. Credit: BDN file photo

The number of people severely sick with COVID-19 in Maine has hit its highest point since the end of April with a higher share of hospitalized people in intensive care than any other period of widespread cases during the pandemic so far.

There were 123 people hospitalized with the virus in Maine as of Monday, with 61 of them in intensive care units. Serious hospitalizations have not been that high here since April 30, according to state data. The record was 71 patients in critical care during a January surge.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said on Wednesday that 39 — just 12 percent — of the state’s 329 intensive care beds are available. That stress came the amount of people who are hospitalized with the virus doubled in two weeks, going from 57 to 117 as of Tuesday. Another 26 people are on ventilators.

The severity of the illness seen in Maine is almost certainly attributable to the rise of the delta variant, which has shown up in nearly 100 percent of tests sampled for the strain within the last week, making it likely that it is driving new cases. Three-quarters of those hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated, Shah said. 

“I cannot think of a starker series of numbers to show the impact that COVID-19, and in particular the delta variant, have had on Maine in just a two week period,” he said.

Shah said the availability of beds is influenced by both how many people are available to staff them and how many are in the hospital for non-COVID related issues. 

The situation in Maine is not as dire as other states yet, where full hospitals have had to send virus patients to other places for treatment because they have no other place to put them. Hospitalizations increased 14 percent from Aug. 10 to Aug. 17, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which is predicting hospitalizations will continue to rise over the next month.

Northern Light Health, which serves northern and eastern Maine and operates Mercy Hospital in Portland, had to recently open a third intensive care unit to care for COVID-19 patients. That is partially because of staffing challenges health providers are facing during the pandemic, said Dr. James Jarvis, who helps lead the system’s COVID-19 response.

It is also because people are sicker than before, which Jarvis attributed to the delta variant. He said 17 of the 30 people admitted to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor are in critical care units, the availability of which can fluctuate quickly. 

Some of those people need multiple staff members to care for them, putting greater strain on any staffing challenges. About 41 people are hospitalized across the system overall.

“That is a tremendous amount of resources that have to be dedicated to those patients,” he said.

Smaller hospitals can be strained quicker because of their low capacity rates. York Hospital only has five ICU beds and two patients hospitalized with COVID-19, although a spokesperson would not say whether those patients are in critical care.

But infectious disease specialist Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau at York Hospital said the greater issue during the pandemic has not been beds, but the ability to staff them if employees get sick or exposed to COVID-19. The hospital is doing “OK” on that front now but has begun making operational changes as the community transmission rate in York County has increased. 

She said the hospital has occasionally had to transport patients to nearby hospitals in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Portland or Massachusetts if they are especially sick, because the hospital may not have the ability to care for them properly. 

“It doesn’t take much for us to be tipped over at a small hospital,” she said.