Maine is seeing new variants of COVID-19 become the dominant strains circulating in the state, but health experts don’t believe they will be any more severe than their predecessors or cause a massive spike in hospitalizations during the holiday season.
The new bivalent booster protects against emerging variants, but other regions are still struggling with surging cases of the virus, which can infect people who have already had COVID-19. This gives Maine — a heavily vaccinated state — an advantage in facing the new variants, said Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah.
“At this juncture of COVID-19, so many people have varying degrees of immunity, particularly in Maine, where we have one of the highest number of people who are vaccinated and boosted,” Shah said during a Monday appearance on Maine Public Radio. “Any new variant runs smack up against an immunological wall when it tries to get a foothold in the state.”
As of Monday, nearly 76 percent of Mainers have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data. Even though Maine residents have the third-highest rate nationally for receiving the booster — after Vermont and Washington, D.C. — that’s still only 23 percent of the state’s population older than 5. The percentage is higher for older Mainers, with 58 percent of residents 50 and older having received their second booster, according to the U.S. CDC.
The new BQ 1 and 1.1 variants went from making up roughly 20 percent of COVID-19 cases nationwide last month to comprising more than 57 percent as of Nov. 26, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the Northeast, BQ 1 and 1.1 made up nearly 59 percent of COVID-19 in the region as of Nov. 26, according to the CDC.
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 will likely increase slightly in the coming weeks following Thanksgiving, but it will be difficult to determine how much the BQ variants are to blame compared with the effects of more people simply gathering indoors, said Dr. Dora Mills, chief health improvement officer for the Portland-based MaineHealth hospital system.
Regardless of what spurs the boost in hospitalizations, Shah and Mills agreed the new variants likely won’t cause an overwhelming spike in cases and hospitalizations.
“In parts of the country and world that have had more time with the BQ variants, thankfully they haven’t caused significant increases in cases or hospitalizations that we saw almost a year ago with the Omicron variant,” Shah said.
The intersection of COVID-19, RSV and influenza, Mills said, is equally as concerning as the new BQ variants, however.
“We’ve had some kids admitted to Maine Medical Center with influenza in the last few weeks, and that’s unusual to see this early in the season,” Mills said.
This year’s flu is a strain that causes more severe illness and hits both people under 4 and older than 65 the hardest. The good news is this year’s flu shot is a good match for the strain that’s circulating.
Both Mills and Shah urged people to get the updated COVID-19 booster and flu shot, maintain good hygiene and wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces as the holiday season approaches and Mainers move indoors for the winter.
“We all want COVID-19 to be behind us, but it’s not yet behind us,” Shah said. “It’s still very much with us, particularly as we go into a time of the year characterized by gatherings and festivities, and I want everyone to remain vigilant.”