Masked and unmasked pedestrians walk along Central Street in Bangor in this September 2021 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped sharply in the Bangor area and have effectively plateaued statewide in recent days, a hopeful sign after Penobscot County was nearly overrun with patients during the delta variant surge.

Eastern Maine Medical Center saw hospitalizations decline from 59 patients on Sept. 18 to 33 on Friday, according to data provided by Northern Light Health, for a 44 percent decrease. The Bangor hospital had typically seen the highest total number of COVID-19 patients of any Maine hospital in recent weeks.

The decline seen in Bangor could be a sign of things to come for the rest of the state, which has seen a drop in total hospitalizations but rising cases and steady rate of new coronavirus patients. Both cases and hospitalizations have been decreasing in recent weeks nationally, but experts said on Friday that it is not clear yet whether Maine has hit new peaks. 

This week marked the first time in two months that hospitalizations have stayed flat in Maine, which reported 211 COVID-19 patients in hospitals on Friday for the lowest total in two weeks. It was a reprieve for hospitals whose intensive care unit capacities were challenged for more than a month with high levels of critical patients.

Maine’s slowdown could be evidence that increasing vaccinations are further reducing hospitalizations, though other factors including distancing and masking will also play a role in stopping spread. Mainers received almost 67,000 doses of the COVID-19 shots in September, which was 5,000 more than in August and 27,000 more than in July, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Dr. James Jarvis, senior physician executive of Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response, said Wednesday that Maine seemed to be at a “plateau” in coronavirus numbers. However, he said that it is often difficult to anticipate the future spread of such an unpredictable virus.

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 in this August 2021 file photo. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

He noted that many experts thought the winter surge would be the worst Maine would see. But it has since been matched by the recent surge of the delta variant. Part of the reason for lower hospitalization numbers at Northern Light hospitals, Jarvis said, was because people had died of the virus in the hospital at a high rate over the previous week, which he called a “tragedy.”

There is scant evidence that Maine is out of the woods yet in terms of new hospitalizations, said Dr. Gibson Parrish, an epidemiologist based in southern Maine who used to work for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though he did note some regions are faring better than others.

“The number of cases in Maine is continuing to increase,” Parrish said. “I don’t think that bodes well for hospitalizations declining.”

Parrish said virus rates in the coming weeks and months would depend on a number of factors. The share of Mainers wearing masks and observing social distancing indoors will also play a significant role along with vaccines, he said. The significant rise in cases seen across Maine in recent weeks could also play a role in changing “general public concern” around the virus, said Dr. Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiology professor at Boston University.

“People actually say, ‘Maybe I better not go and sing in the choir this week,’” Horsburgh said. “‘Maybe I won’t go drinking with my buddies this weekend.’”

He noted that the spread of the virus varies locally all across the U.S., not just in each state but each community, where even a single event could be the source for a number of cases.

Coronavirus hospitalizations have fluctuated at EMMC throughout the pandemic, peaking on New Year’s Eve last year at 55 before the present surge. As recently as late July, there was not a single patient hospitalized at EMMC with the coronavirus.

While experts said vaccines weren’t the only factor to prevent spread, they said the fact that so many eligible Mainers and Americans had yet to receive a single shot allowed the delta variant to infect people far more easily. About 264,000 eligible Mainers 12 and older had yet to receive a single shot of the vaccine as of Friday, about 22 percent of those eligible. The vaccination rate is much lower in the state’s most rural counties.

“People should put aside their qualms and get vaccinated,” Horsburgh said. “It’s very effective.”