Men and women in National Guard camoflaugue, wearing masks, line up and enter a hospital.
Capt. Joseph White leads a group of Maine National Guardsmen into Central Maine Medical Center, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, in Lewiston, Maine. Maine hospitals that were stretched to the brink last month due to surging COVID cases and large staffing shortages have seen some relief as COVID cases and hospitalizations have fallen. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The twin crises of COVID-induced staffing shortages and stressed capacity at Maine hospitals appear to be easing slightly as the number of COVID infections and hospitalizations have decreased.

The number of people hospitalized for COVID has declined nearly 30 percent since setting a record high of 436 on Jan. 13, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. Plus, preliminary data are also showing that the level of coronavirus being detected in wastewater is declining, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said this week.

The number of Maine hospital staff sickened with COVID has also declined across the state, a month after more than 1,000 health care providers missed work on a single day, and a Lewiston hospital began to allow some infected providers to continue working because of staff shortages.

Both data points suggest that COVID may be loosening the iron grip it has had on hospitals since the infectious omicron variant took hold in Maine in December, though the president of the Maine Hospital Association warned that it may be months before health care providers are back to full pre-pandemic capacity.

Only weeks ago, the highly infectious omicron variant had overwhelmed hospitals, leading Gov. Janet Mills to dispatch National Guard members to act as hospital support staff and ask the federal government to send medical personnel to some of the state’s hospitals, including Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

Northern Light Health had 63 COVID patients across its 10-hospital system as of Thursday, spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said. That’s more than a third less than the 101 COVID patients the health system reported on Jan. 14.

Some 448 Northern Light employees were out of work on Thursday, Spruce said, an improvement from the nearly 500 who missed work on Jan. 5 because they had contracted or were exposed to COVID. The hospital system has about 12,000 employees.

“We are pleased that number is lower than last week, and remain hopeful the number will continue to decrease, especially as more of our employees become eligible to receive a booster of the COVID-19 vaccine,” Spruce said.  

Health care providers became eligible for the Pfizer COVID-19 booster in September, and the state’s vaccine mandate for health care providers took effect at the end of October.

All Northern Light hospitals are on contingency staffing plans, which allow employees to return to work five days after infection if they’re asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. A.R. Gould Hospital in Presque Isle has returned to allowing elective surgeries after postponing them in December, Spruce said.

Augusta-based MaineGeneral Health also reported having fewer staff absences and COVID patients since the winter surge.

Seventy-seven MaineGeneral employees were absent Thursday due to COVID or seasonal illnesses, said spokesperson Joy McKenna. That’s down from the 125 who missed work Jan. 5 due to COVID.

MaineGeneral had 14 COVID patients on Thursday, McKenna said. The health care system has about 4,500 employees.

St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, which was the only Maine hospital to allow providers to work while sick with COVID, has also seen improvement, spokesperson Steve Costello said.

St. Mary’s had 12 COVID patients on Thursday, a drop since the hospital reported a high of 33 COVID patients on Jan. 7, Costello said. The hospital stopped letting COVID-positive employees work after that weekend.

“We’ve been fooled before,” Costello said of the hospital’s downward trend in COVID patients, “so it’s not something that I would want to count on at this point in time, but it certainly seems to be headed in that direction.”

Steve Michaud, the president of the Maine Hospital Association, cautioned against hopes that hospitals were nearing normal operations, citing health care staff shortages and a backlog of people seeking non-COVID treatment as hurdles.

“Those things aren’t going away just because omicron is going away,” Michaud said. “Nobody should expect, when we have five COVID patients left in the hospital, that our capacity problems are gone.”

There is also the possibility that a new variant could emerge and create another surge in hospitalizations and infection.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.