Harold "Hal" Wheeler, 84, who recently recovered from COVID-19, counts himself lucky that he was only sick for about a week. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Hal Wheeler remembers when his family had to ration gas during World War II. At 84, he finds himself having to make sacrifices facing two different threats.

The Bangor resident still wears a mask when grocery shopping. He counts himself lucky a case of the virus last month only sickened him for about 10 days, something he credits to his COVID-19 booster. He is fine with continuing to be cautious. It is part of his life now.

Wheeler is less accepting of the recent spike in oil costs. Inflation drove many costs up over the last two years, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February caused fuel prices to take a major turn. When his oil dealer told Wheeler last week that the price had gone to $5.19 per gallon, he thought his heart would stop. At that rate, filling his 200-gallon tank would cost $1,000, more than half of the Social Security income he and his wife live on every month.

“It gives me a chill to think of the cost,” he said. “When you factor in a mortgage and a monthly bill, it feels impossible.”

Cars stream by a gas station on outer Congress Street in Portland on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

His situation encapsulates those of many entering the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. For two years, the virus shaped our lives. Record-setting surges pushed hospitals to their limits. The most recent one loosened around a month ago, indicating that the third year of the pandemic may be marked by the fallout from the virus rather than COVID-19 itself.

Just after the second anniversary of Maine’s first recorded case, hospitals are catching their breath but are having to manage patients who delayed care during surges. Wider challenges of workforce shortages and supply chain backups are not going away. The threat of another variant will always be on the horizon.

“COVID is not going away,” said Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah. “Recurrences, and even surges, are a possibility.”

The fall and winter surge, which occurred despite high vaccination rates, came at a large human cost. December 2021 was the most deadly month for COVID-19 in Maine, with January 2022 just behind it. While older people have been hit hardest, Mainers in their 20s and 30s also made up a greater share of deaths this winter compared with previous surges.

Virus-related hospitalizations have dropped more than 70 percent from their peak during the omicron surge in January, with just 121 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday. It is still significantly higher than earlier moments in the pandemic. Last summer, prior to the delta surge, statewide hospitalizations dropped below 30.

Declining hospitalizations confirm the pandemic is entering a downswing, said Dr. Peter Millard, a former epidemiology staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While he said those who have comorbidities will always be more at risk, Maine’s high vaccination rate coupled with the natural immunity many likely have after so many have gotten sick likely means there is widespread protection from serious illness.

“I think we can relax this time unless we have signals another variant will arise,” he said.

The abatement in COVID cases is a relief to Doug Sawyer, the interim chief medical officer of MaineHealth, the state’s biggest hospital system. But he faces the challenge of structuring care for patients who delayed care during the surges, leaving them sicker.

Bed space is still tight. Rebuilding teams with travel nurses who have become crucial and costly stopgaps as medical staff have burned out takes time. Even fewer COVID-positive patients still need precautions, leading him to predict “a prolonged recovery.”

For Heather Ward, a primary care medical director at Waldo County Hospital in Belfast, work is certainly easier than it was a few months ago. She has been able to return to providing family care, not just managing COVID-19 problems. But intake procedures and other precautions she takes when interacting with a patient who might have the virus or simply a cold means how she provides care on a day-to-day basis has been altered for good, she said.

That was hard to accept when the delta surge began last summer, especially because the vaccine was so prevalent, she said. But Ward said she has since moved on from those feelings.

“We have to accept and move on,” she said.

In this Feb. 10, 2022, file photo, Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the State Address at the Maine State House in Augusta. Credit: Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald via AP

Many would say the same for Maine’s economy. The pandemic began with doomsday fiscal projections for states and local governments, but a wave of federal aid has led to a projected $1.2 billion budget surplus for Maine through mid-2023.

Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has called for $750 relief checks for most Mainers to help offset cost increases. In the past week, prominent Republicans including former Gov. Paul LePage, Mills’ likely opponent in the 2022 election, backed suspending gas taxes.

Businesses are still feeling pandemic effects. Retailer Mexicali Blues buys much of its clothing, jewelry and home decorations for its five Maine stores from craftspeople in seven countries. Port congestion, trucking delays and problems with customs persist. Keeping its online business going during early pandemic closures, along with curbside service, helped the company turn profitable by the end of 2020 and this year.

CEO Topher Mallory said staying flexible and communicating with staff frequently has helped as different safety protocols came into play with surges of the delta and then omicron variants. Investing in morale, including frequent video calls with managers and staff to allow everyone to give input, made a difference when they had to return to wearing masks, he said.

“As a small business, a lot of it is outside our hands,” he said. “We are getting as creative as we can with different routes. I’m not sure that it’s going to go away for us.”

None of this means the next year of the pandemic will resemble the first two. The greater availability of vaccinations and therapeutic treatments means Maine has more tools to prevent hospitalizations and deaths from the virus in the event of another surge, Shah noted.

Wheeler, the Bangor resident, said he cannot help but feel angry when he thinks about people not bothering to take precautions when risk is high. He is keeping an eye on news of an emerging variant recently discovered on a small scale.

“We haven’t changed; we haven’t let down our guard,” he said. “We don’t intend to.”

BDN writers Jessica Piper and Lori Valigra contributed to this report.