In this Dec. 8, 2020, file photo, a health care worker wears personal protective equipment as she speaks to a patient at a mobile testing location for COVID-19 in Auburn. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine hospitals had roughly 10 percent of intensive care unit beds open on Thursday with an industry leader warning the system was nearing crisis and the state’s largest providers uniting in a rare joint briefing to urge residents to wear masks and get vaccinated.

The rise in infections, more of which are resulting in severe cases due to the delta variant, has quickly added stress. As of Thursday, Maine had only 34 unfilled critical care beds, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah. That was down from 52 earlier this week, although that was largely due to an increase in patients without the virus.

The calls marked the first time in the 18 months since the pandemic arrived in Maine that hospitals have warned of an imminent shortage of ICU beds. There are still fewer patients hospitalized in Maine compared with the winter, but the delta variant has landed a greater share of patients in critical care units and hospitals do not have the staff or resources to quickly adapt.

The situation is “near crisis” across the state, said Steve Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. MaineHealth, the largest hospital system here, was holding about 50 patients in emergency rooms because no beds were available on Thursday. 

At Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, adults are holding some pediatric ICU beds. Dr. James Jarvis, who helps lead Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response, said the Bangor hospital has enough beds for children for now, but the shortages were concerning if more children needed to be admitted to the hospital. St. Joseph’s hospital has only one ICU bed available, a spokesperson said, although it still has room to convert beds.

MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta had only one critical care bed available on Thursday, a spokesperson said. That hospital only has two COVID-19 patients in the ICU with 13 non-COVID-19 patients.

Opening alternate care sites or adding a large number of ICU beds is not an option right now, multiple hospital leaders said, because there are not enough workers to staff them.

“We don’t have a lot of other tricks up our sleeve or other places we can put patients,” said Dr. Joan Boomsma, the chief medical officer for MaineHealth.

At the beginning of the pandemic, mandates in Maine and across the country delayed many other medical procedures to reserve capacity for hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. Maine providers prepared for overflow capacities that did not come to pass in other places. But hospitals are closer to normal operations now and they cannot quickly convert back.

In addition to the delta variant making people more sick, hospitals are busier than usual in the summer, Michaud said, adding that hospitals in all major cities appear to be crunched for space.

“The thing is that you’re so busy otherwise that [hospitals] are going to be limited in their ability to do that now,” Michaud said.

Boomsma cited COVID-19 along with seasonal increases and staffing trouble as reasons for the bed shortage. Dr. Steve Diaz, the chief medical officer for MaineGeneral Health, said that while acute COVID-19 cases were not responsible for most hospitalizations right now, the pandemic had made it more difficult for partners such as nursing homes to take patients.

Hospital leaders pointed to several reasons for lack of staff, including longtime issues with finding workers in Maine, health care workers reevaluating their jobs after the difficulties of working in the pandemic, concerns about Gov. Janet Mills’ new vaccine mandate for health workers and unvaccinated workers needing to quarantine due to exposure to the virus.

They reiterated that vaccinations were an essential tool to stop the spread of the virus and encouraged adults who are not yet vaccinated to get the vaccine as soon as possible. About 80 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 at MaineHealth facilities were unvaccinated, Boomsma said, and all of the patients in the ICU with severe COVID-19 have not had the vaccine.

“I just want people to realize that you count on all of us to provide care for the most serious illnesses and injuries across the state,” she said, “and the more COVID we take care of in our hospitals, the less resources we have to take care of all of those other things.”

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.

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