AUGUSTA, Maine — Skyrocketing COVID-19 cases across the U.S. provide a window into the “perfect storm” that Maine hospitals could soon face as the omicron variant becomes more prevalent here, health officials warned Wednesday.
Even though early studies have shown that the variant is less likely to lead to severe COVID-19 cases, the increased spread of the super-contagious omicron is likely to land more people in the hospital at a time when mild breakthrough cases further challenge hospital staffing.
While the situation is grim in Maine now, with the rate of positive tests reaching a record on Wednesday, Maine has not seen the near-vertical case growth that most states have in recent weeks. U.S. cases are up 254 percent compared with two weeks prior, according to a New York Times analysis. In Alabama and Louisiana, cases are up more than sevenfold.
Maine is the only state in which recorded cases have actually ticked down over two weeks, although slowdowns in testing and reporting over the holidays may account for some of that drop. But skyrocketing cases should be anticipated here soon, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah told reporters on Wednesday.
“It will be everywhere,” Shah said. “It will soon be the dominant — if not the only — variant in Maine.”
Although omicron was first detected in Maine in mid-December, it may have gotten off to a relatively slow start here. An analysis from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the strain accounted for 95 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. in the last week of December, up from just 38 percent two weeks prior. In New England, however, the variant accounted for only 82 percent of cases in the last week of December.
In Maine, just 8 percent of positive samples tested in late December were the omicron variant, though Shah said that may be an undercount and are likely higher now based on internal data. The agency provides numerical updates on the prevalence of variants on Mondays.
The later rise of the omicron strain would fit with trends seen previously in the pandemic. Both the original strain of the virus, which saw outbreaks in major cities such as New York and Seattle in February 2020, as well as the delta variant, which took off in southeastern states this summer, hit other parts of the country hard before they took off in Maine.
That did not mean Maine could avoid the virus forever, with the state seeing among the highest case rates among states during the late fall and early winter.
Studies in other countries have suggested the omicron variant is both more transmissible generally and better at evading previous immunity, though fully vaccinated people still have some protection against infection and significant protection against severe illness.
The one positive sign is that evidence from other places provides good reason to believe that the omicron variant is, on average, less severe than the delta variant, said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. He noted hospitalizations have not risen as rapidly as case counts and reports from places where omicron has become predominant indicate a lesser share of people hospitalized are requiring intensive care or mechanical ventilation.
But the highly contagious nature of the variant could still be a problem for Maine hospitals, he said. In addition to increased burden on hospitals due to higher case levels, more breakthrough cases among workers, even if mild, could also make it harder to keep staff at work.
“I’m a little concerned about the perfect storm coming here in the next several weeks,” he said.