: Nurse Cassandra Pateneaude treats a patient in the hallway of the Maine Medical Center emergency department in Portland. The hospital and its affiliates have been pushed to the brink by a recent surge of COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated. Credit: Courtesy of MaineHealth

Omicron will likely become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in Maine within the next few weeks, a top state health official said Wednesday.

Lab results from last week showed that omicron cases accounted for roughly 3 percent of total cases in the state. But it appears that it is spreading rapidly and will crowd out other variants based on various models and evidence from omicron’s spread in other countries, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said.

Shah’s statement comes as record COVID-19 cases rage across Maine. While early studies out of the United Kingdom, South Africa and the U.S. indicate that patients with omicron have a lower hospitalization rate than those infected with other forms of the virus, it appears to be more contagious than the delta variant and could increase hospitalizations by infecting more people.

“Recent data suggests that it will cause a spike in cases, as it has done in other countries,” Shah said. “That spike may increase the stress on hospitals, which … are already under great stress.”

Delta, the contagious and serious strain of the virus that has fueled the recent increase in cases here, took less than a month to become Maine’s dominant variant after it was discovered here in June. All indications are that omicron will follow a similar path. The state detected it for the first time on Friday in five test samples from Penobscot County.

Vaccines and boosters remain among the best weapons against omicron, Shah said. Other standard measures, such as wearing a mask in public places, also will help prevent the spread of omicron as they did with other variants of COVID-19.

The Maine CDC has encouraged boosters as the best way to prevent omicron from getting a foothold in the state like it has in Denmark and South Africa, Shah said. But he said the variant is most likely spreading widely in Maine and any increase in cases could cause trouble.

He noted Pfizer’s antiviral pill to treat COVID-19, which received emergency approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for certain groups on Wednesday, appeared to be effective against omicron. Officials do not yet know how many pills Maine would get out of the 65,000 Pfizer is expected to deliver to the U.S. within a week, but supplies will likely be limited.

“That, unfortunately, will be a constraint on our ability to use it,” Shah said.