Gov. Janet Mills listens as Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at a news conference in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that she is activating the Maine National Guard to augment short health care staffing and requesting federal help for two beleaguered hospitals amid a record COVID-19 surge.

It was an extraordinary response coming as Maine hospitals struggle with a surge of patients that have pushed many to capacity or just below it. Maine called upon the Guard last year to stand up temporary hospitals, but those contingency plans were never needed. The number of open beds statewide is now the lowest that it has been during the pandemic.

Mills signed a directive allowing up to 75 Guard members to be used in non-clinical settings in the facilities. Members sent to nursing homes will primarily be performing support work like chores with the aim of opening emergency room beds now taken by patients awaiting rehabilitative beds. Those homes have been particularly stressed by wider health care workforce shortages, with several closures announced in the fall.

In hospitals, guardsmen will also administer monoclonal antibodies, a therapy aimed at treating more serious cases of COVID-19. The state is still determining exactly where it will send Guard members, but expects to begin deploying them as soon as next week, officials said.

The Democratic governor is also requesting federal aid for Maine Medical Center in Portland and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. If it is approved, teams of federal doctors and other health professionals will supplement hospital staff under a surge program.

“I do not take this action lightly, but we must take steps to alleviate the strain on our health care system and ensure care for all those who need it,” Mills said.

The Portland hospital is Maine’s largest at 637 beds, while the Lewiston hospital has been perhaps heaviest hit by the pandemic in recent months. It and two sister hospitals in Rumford and Bridgton were completely full late last month and it called on Mills to ease her vaccine mandate for health care workers amid wider staffing shortages in October.

A record 379 people were hospitalized with the virus on Wednesday. About 80 percent of the state’s emergency beds were full as of Wednesday, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data, with 35 percent dedicated to COVID-19 patients. Things are especially bad in Penobscot County, where nine out of 10 inpatient beds overall are currently occupied.

Hospital leaders said they were running out of options on Wednesday and pleaded for unvaccinated members of the public to get shots, as the majority of COVID-19 related admissions are still those who are not fully vaccinated.

The situation has been dire for weeks as hospitals have tried to alleviate the pressure by postponing elective surgeries or nixing certain services altogether, converting space into makeshift rooms and treating patients in hallways. Mills said other options meant to help hospitals accommodate a surge in patients, such as temporary hospitals, would not make sense because of staffing challenges.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the efforts will not reduce the burdens on hospitals entirely but may allow officials to focus their critical-care staff on treating the very ill.

“There’s no such thing as a silver bullet,” she said.