Unlike the last two falls, Maine’s COVID infections are falling

Nov. 24 (Reuters) – The number of hospitalized patients infected with COVID in Maine has fallen dramatically over the past few weeks, in sharp contrast to the surge in hospital admissions over the past two fall’s.

It’s a welcome trend that health officials hope will continue as Maine faces a combination of respiratory illnesses that could strain the health care system. The state’s hospitals are currently packed with cases of pediatric respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and are bracing for a potentially severe flu season this winter.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations stood at 98 on Tuesday, with 14 people in intensive care. That’s the lowest patient count since May and a significant drop from 155 hospitalizations two weeks ago and 234 on October 17.

In the past two Novembers, Maine experienced some of the worst waves of the pandemic.

In 2020, the number of hospitalized patients with COVID increased from 28 at the beginning of November to 139 at the end of the month.

In 2021, when a Delta variant surge was followed by the Omicron surge, COVID-19 hospitalizations increased from 212 to 330 in November and continued to increase until peaking at 436 on January 13, 2022.

Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations are also declining, down 4.4% from last week, and the overall trend in the US this fall is flat.

dr Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the declining COVID-19 hospitalizations are welcome “good news” at a time when hospitals are “packed” with RSV patients.

“What plays an outsized role in bringing about the downturn is our extremely high vaccination rate,” Shah said. “That makes it harder for the virus to jump from person to person.”

Maine has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, including the new booster shot targeting Omicron.

Maine has the second-highest vaccination rate for the Omicron booster, with 21.2% of people ages 5 and older receiving the vaccine, compared to 11.3% nationally, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many southern states have Omicron booster rates of 5% or less. Vermont has the best omicron booster rate in the country at 23.2%.

Shah said that while Omicron booster rates of just over 20% don’t sound like much, combined with the immunity from previous vaccinations and the immunity of people who have contracted COVID-19, could be enough to contain the increases.

“Even that 20% has a significant immunological effect compared to states that have 3% to 4% with the bivalent (Omicron) booster,” Shah said.

Maine is also leading the original vaccine series, first rolled out in spring 2021, with about 82% of the state’s 1.3 million residents fully vaccinated, according to the US CDC.

Sewage testing, which is an early warning system that can predict higher virus rates in the community, also shows a drop in virus prevalence in many Maine cities and towns this fall, including Portland, Westbrook, Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta .

dr Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer of MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals, said one reason hospital admissions aren’t rising may be that compared to a year or two ago, Die immunity is high.

“We have a much bigger immunity wall than last year,” Mills said.

Another possible factor is that often there aren’t two respiratory viruses circulating in large numbers at the same time, she said.

“It’s unusual to have two or three respiratory viruses showing high levels at the same time,” Mills said. “It’s not exactly clear why, but they tend to elbow each other out.”

That could bode well for concerns this winter about a “tridemic,” or a simultaneous rise in RSV, COVID-19, and influenza levels. But Mills said she doesn’t make predictions about the winter because viruses are unpredictable.

RSV is a pediatric respiratory disease that is most dangerous for infants, while influenza is most deadly for the elderly. Maine has had low levels of influenza so far, but the virus is now hitting much of the east coast, including high levels as far north as New York and Connecticut, according to the US CDC.

“I’m looking at winter with some caution, but we really don’t have a good barometer of what these viruses are going to do,” Mills said.

Other mutations of the Omicron variant — BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 — add more layers of complexity, but Shah said he’s seeing relatively good news about the variants so far. The variants do not appear to cause more severe COVID-19, which is promising, Shah said. And while they’ve shown some ability to evade immunity in lab tests, the human immune system is far more complex and robust.

“These variants do a really good job of tricking the immune system in a petri dish, but in the real world, that doesn’t necessarily lead to more human infections,” Shah said.

OVERVOLTAGE COULD COME

But scientists, including Shah, are not claiming victory over COVID-19, and there could still be a winter rush.

“The question is whether that surge will be nationwide and whether the magnitude of the surge and surge will be about what we’ve seen with Delta and Omicron, or much smaller,” says Samuel Scarpino, vice president of Pathogen Surveillance for the Rockefeller Foundation said in an interview with NPR on Nov. 11.

Meanwhile, public health experts say they should practice good hygiene, including washing hands frequently, wearing a mask in crowded and unventilated spaces, and staying home when sick. And public health officials are urging people in Maine who have not yet received the flu shot or Omicron boosters to do so as soon as possible.

Additionally, Mills said parents with children younger than 6 months should limit the infant’s contact with other people — especially at family gatherings where the children might be kissed or passed around — to reduce the chance of RSV, which mimics the common cold in adults .

“If you have a very young child, I wouldn’t pass the baby around and have everyone kiss the baby,” Mills said.

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