Medical personnel discuss patients that had been admitted for testing for the coronavirus at the entrance of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston in March 2020. A spokesperson said that all 116 of its beds were filled as of late Tuesday afternoon. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The first cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant were reported in Maine on Friday, signaling further challenges to a state facing record virus-related hospitalizations, although much remains unknown about the new strain.

The variant, first detected in the Netherlands but initially reported in South Africa in late November, has been found in 40 states, with New Hampshire announcing its presence on Monday. Five samples of tests from Penobscot County showed that the omicron variant is present in Maine, Robert Long, a spokesperson for the Maine Center for Disease Control, said.

While the delta variant still accounts for nearly all Maine COVID-19 cases sequenced over the past few months, according to state data, the speed of omicron’s spread could change that. The delta variant went from making up only a handful of cases to nearly all in only two months, leading health officials to redouble calls for Mainers to get vaccinated.

“Based on what we know about strained hospitals and packed ICUs, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself, your family, and your community,” Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah tweeted on Friday.

Experts are still divided on the extent to which the new variant is more contagious than previous versions, or possibly less severe, as more studies emerge from various countries. A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the majority of omicron cases were mild, although it can take time for more severe symptoms to develop. 

A study out of South Africa this week likewise found people who tested positive for the omicron variant were, on average, less likely to end up in the hospital than people with previous iterations of the virus. But some omicron patients were still hospitalized, and faster spread of the virus could lead to more patients hospitalized at once if enough people become infected, a challenge for strained health care systems.

The same study also found that the variant was more able to evade vaccine-induced immunity, although vaccines still substantially reduced the probability of hospitalization. In individuals who received the two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the efficacy against any infection was around only 30 percent, although efficacy against severe infection was still 70 percent. Boosters are likely to increase immunity, however, even against the omicron variant.

The news comes as Maine is enduring a prolonged wave of new COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant. The surge has led to record-setting numbers of people hospitalized with the virus. It is spreading most aggressively in some of Maine’s least-vaccinated counties, including Piscataquis and Aroostook counties, where the seven-day case rate is three times higher than Cumberland County, the most vaccinated region.