The use of indoor masks is once again recommended in much of Maine as COVID hospitalizations increase.

Masks are once again recommended in eight of the 16 counties as hospitalizations increase and Maine has the highest COVID infection rate in the country.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its county-level assessments Thursday afternoon and designated Cumberland County, the Middle Coast region and most of northern Maine as levels. COVID-19 and are at risk of putting stress on local hospitals. In counties designated as high levels, the federal agency recommends that everyone wear masks inside public spaces.

What Maine is experiencing is “the war going on between the virus and humans,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of Minnesota. And the rise in cases and hospitalizations in Maine suggests the virus is winning the current battle here, he said.

The highest-designated Maine counties are Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Aroostook. Seven counties are now designated with average levels, which means masks are recommended for seniors or those with underlying medical conditions. These counties include York, Kennebec, Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Waldo, and Washington. Androscoggin County kept its designation low, meaning the U.S. CDC does not formally recommend the use of a mask.

Community levels are based on the number of new infections reported in the last seven days, new hospital admissions for COVID-19, and the percentage of hospital beds staffed with staff used by patients with COVID-19. A high-grade county is considered to be at risk of straining hospital capacity.

The change in risk assessments follows a sharp increase in cases in Maine and the Northeast as a result of the emergence of three omicron subvariants, each of which is more contagious than the omicron strain that caused the record increase. of cases during the winter. Maine is experiencing the latest increase a couple of weeks after the most populous states in the Northeast.

Osterholm said the virus is trying to spread among human hosts and to do so, variants and subvariants are being developed. This is what is happening in Maine, he said, with omicron variant variants that caused an increase in cases during the winter.

It is difficult to accurately predict which sub-variants will emerge, but it is easy to predict that new versions of the virus will appear at some point, said Osterholm, who was a member of the COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board appointed by President-elect Joe. They start in November 2020.

“The whole country is far from done,” he said, “even though people want to think we are.”

The only good news for Maine in the current wave, Osterholm said, is that a rising level of immunity in the population should prevent the latest outbreak from reaching the levels seen in December and January and also limit the death toll and severe COVID. cases requiring hospitalization in intensive care units. The number of serious cases, he said, is not expected to coincide with the peaks reached last winter.

The number of patients in Maine hospitals with COVID-19 rose to 203 on Friday morning, a 50 percent increase from two weeks ago. Of these patients, 35 are in intensive care and four are on ventilators.

The state also reported 930 new cases and 12 additional deaths on Friday. Not all deaths reported by the state in the previous 24 hours. Maine health officials review death certificates and periodically add deaths that were not counted weeks or even months ago.

On Friday, Maine reported 421 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, nearly three times the national average of 142 cases, according to the U.S. CDC. In Maine it follows Rhode Island, Vermont and New York.

Infections have increased in recent weeks in Maine and other northeastern states as new and more contagious versions of the virus have spread across the region. The omicron subvariant BA.2 and two closely related subvariants, BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1, now account for 80 percent of new infections in Maine, according to data released by the state.

Maine infectious disease experts echoed Osterholm’s suggestion that the current outbreak will not be as widespread as the spread of the omicron variant over the winter, but the virus will not go away completely.

Suzanne Moreshead, associate vice president of infection prevention at Northern Light Health, said the latest version of the virus is more transmissible but not as severe.

He said Maine is in a transition season and there are still a number of indoor gatherings for communities and families, such as Easter, Mother’s Day and high school graduations. But once summer arrives, he said, most people head outside where transmission is more difficult, suggesting that the spread of the virus will slow down during the warmer weather months.

However, Moreshead said there is also a chance of another resurgence in the fall, if meetings tend to shift back inland.

COVID “will obviously be with us now in the foreseeable future,” he said. “It’s growing and shrinking.”

Laura L. Blaisdell, a Maine pediatrician and infectious disease expert, said public health officials are legitimately pleased that 88 percent of Mainers have been vaccinated. But that still leaves about 150,000 Mainers who did not receive vaccinations, he said, and “the virus will find you.”

He said the growing number of COVID patients requiring hospitalization in Maine shows how quickly the view of the pandemic can change.

“We are once again in the unenviable position of having fought well at the beginning of the war but (currently) losing the battle in terms of hospitalizations,” Blaisdell said. “We must be humble to try to project what will happen.

The increase in Maine COVID cases is steady across the state and no specific region shows a significantly higher rate of COVID than any other, according to MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven more hospitals in Maine.

With exceptions, there are two large groups of people admitted to hospitals specifically because of COVID, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, MaineHealth’s director of health improvement and former CDC state director. They are older people, vaccinated and younger people, not vaccinated.

Public health officials, including Mills, have continued to encourage Maine residents to protect themselves from contracting COVID by masking, vaccinating, and empowering themselves, choosing to meet outdoors when possible, and tests regularly.

This story will be updated.

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