Amanda Tugman-Henderson RN  (left) helps Michelle Gardner RN get into full PPE gear to enter a patient's room Friday at Houlton Regional Hospital. Credit: Photo courtesy of Houlton Regional Hospital

HOULTON, Maine — With the number of COVID-19 cases filling up hospital beds throughout Aroostook County, many facilities are finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate those in need of emergency medical services.

Houlton Regional Hospital, a 25-bed, critical access hospital serving southern Aroostook County, has been so slammed with patients needing care that oftentimes those arriving at the Emergency Department have to wait in makeshift areas in the hallways because there are simply no rooms available for them.

As Aroostook County continues to have some of the highest rates of cases in Maine, there is little relief in sight. With 271 as of Friday, Aroostook has the highest number of cases per capita (40.4 cases per 10,000 people) of any county in Maine — about five times that of Cumberland County (7.8 cases).

Sometimes patients are relocated to the Houlton hospital’s 14-bed Acute Care wing, or in a last-ditch effort, the obstetrics unit, provided there is not an influx of mothers who have given birth.

The problem is that hospitals around the state, and even New England, have the same issues, so staff find it more difficult to transfer patients to other facilities, either because there is no room or there is no ambulance available to transport them.

“We can’t move critically ill patients because all the hospital beds are filled in the southern part of the state as well as the intensive care units to the north,” said Gina Brown, chief operating officer at HRH. “So we are trying to take care of patients in our ED (Emergency Department) or our Acute Care Unit that we normally would have transferred to a higher level of care.”

Houlton Regional is not alone in its crisis. On Thursday, Northern Light Medical Center in Presque Isle announced it was no longer doing elective surgeries and had created an entire wing for COVID-19 patients in an effort to meet the demand for hospital care.

The wait time to be transferred can vary anywhere from 12 hours to several days, depending on the severity of the injuries or level of care needed. The Houlton hospital has even expanded its scope to include facilities in Portland and Boston, with little success.

“We have patients waiting to go to other facilities for care that have been waiting here for days and days,” Brown said.

On Friday, the hospital was housing 14 patients in its Acute Care Unit, with five of them admitted for COVID-19. The Emergency Department has rooms for 10 patients, and often far exceeds that number, with five additional beds or chairs lining the hallways, assigned depending on the severity of the person’s illness or injury.

“I have worked here for almost 37 years and we never had a time where we had to put patients in the hallway until now,” Brown said. “It has never been like this. We now have people in the waiting room, in the hallways and it’s a juggling act to see where we are going to find a bed for them.”

Having enough space for patients is only part of the problem, as staff is needed to care for them.

“The other thing to consider is even though we have that many beds, sometimes we can’t take that many patients because of staffing,” said Ellen Bartlett, Infection Prevention and Public Information Officer.

In addition to COVID-19 patients, the hospital is also seeing a spike in people with behavioral health and substance use disorder issues as they struggle to deal with the pandemic.

Both Brown and Bartlett said they are preparing for even greater numbers of COVID-19 cases now that it is the holiday season. In November, the hospital set a record with 123 positive cases. The previous high total was 63 positive cases in August.

For December, the hospital has already recorded 24 new cases.

Bartlett said that 30 percent of the cases in November were for children under the age of 18. Statewide as of Wednesday, seven children had been hospitalized, with three of those in pediatric intensive care, she said.

Both Brown and Bartlett attributed the high number of COVID-19 cases to apathy in the community toward wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing. The fact that, for the most part, things have returned to normal for businesses and social gatherings is another contributing factor.

“People are no longer being thoughtful of who is in their bubble,” Brown said. “People really need to think about their health care workers. These people are tired. They are your family, your friends or your neighbors. It’s been two years and it’s starting to wear on them.”