The Delta version gets weaker pockets; ‘It doesn’t need to burn much to keep burning.’
“The delta version is so much more contagious that it doesn’t require a lot to burn,” said Dora Anne Mills, chief health reform officer for the nonprofit health system MenHealth.
New England leads the country in COVID-19 vaccination, which health experts say provides a buffer against the virus. About 69% of Maine’s total population of about 1.4 million is fully vaccinated, placing the state well ahead of the nation’s 56% full-vaccination rate for the entire population, while trailing only Vermont and Connecticut.
Public-health experts and doctors said they do not believe New England’s overall Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths will come close to the same level as last winter. Still, many northern states face a test in the coming months as the weather turns cooler and people move in, where respiratory viruses can spread more easily, and as people get together for the holidays.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said despite some signs of improvement in Maine hospitals this week, there is a lot of pressure on facilities. He told reporters on Wednesday that it was too early to say that the current boom was turning back.
The state went from four people on ventilators at one time in July to over 40 by mid-September. As of Wednesday, the tally was 31, Dr. Shah said. Hospitals say most of the ventilated patients have not been vaccinated, state wise.
The seven-day average for new cases in Maine, affected somewhat by the backlog of case data being processed by the state, was up from 520 a day on Tuesday, down from 20 most recently in mid-July , Johns Hopkins University data show.
According to Johns Hopkins, 90 people have died in the state from September to Tuesday, compared to 32 in August. Maine has one of the lowest seven-day rates of Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people, CDC data show, with nearly 99% of people over the age of 65 receiving at least one vaccine shot. Researchers say death reports are typically several weeks behind cases, and reflect a time when daily cases were low.
Delta is taking advantage of the difference in vaccination rates within New England. While more than three-quarters of people are fully vaccinated in Maine’s most populous county, Cumberland, which also includes Portland, the rate is 53% in more rural Somerset County. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, case rates in Somerset County were recently several times higher than in Cumberland.
“I also see that very few people are masked in areas with low vaccination,” said Dr. Mills, whose sister is Democratic Gov. Janet Mills of Maine. Describing the state’s crisis as preventable last week, the governor asked more people to take shots.
At Maine Medical Center in Portland, part of MenHealth and the state’s largest hospital, nearly all Covid-19 patients on ventilators had not been vaccinated in a recent surge, and those who received the shots had significantly compromised immune systems. David Seder, Head of Critical Care Services.fke
“We are getting some really devastatingly ill young people, and some otherwise healthy people,” Dr. Seder said.
Maine has also seen a multitude of cases among school children. When the state of emergency ended on June 30, and some schools did not make masks mandatory, the state stopped requiring masks in schools.
To be sure, New England has fared better than some of the low-vaccination hot spots that have been badly hit recently, from the Deep South to Alaska. Maine had the highest seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 residents in New England over the past week, but still lagged nationally and far behind other rising states such as Alaska, West Virginia and Montana.
But measured against New England’s own recent record, there is some trouble in the region. Vermont recently set a record for new daily case counts, driven largely by unconfirmed Covid-19 data for Republican Gov. Phil Scott, said Michael Pisiak, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Financial Regulation. Manages the analysis.
The Delta variant has also exploited vulnerable areas in Massachusetts, such as Hampden County, which has one of the lowest rates of fully vaccinated people in the state, about 56% of the county’s total population.
Chief Executive Mark Kerouac said Baystate Health, a health system in western Massachusetts, had grown from four Covid-19 patients in early July to more than 100 a few weeks ago. “We’re really slamming here,” he said.
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About 75% of Baystate Health’s Covid-19 patients are asymptomatic, Dr. Kerouac said, and those who are vaccinated tend to be older or immunocompromised and often less sick than unvaccinated patients. The number of COVID-19 patients at Baystate Health fell to nearly 70 as of Monday; Dr Kerouac said he expects cases to rise again in his area in the coming weeks.
“There are going to be pockets that pop up in unconnected areas,” he said. “It’s going to vary a lot from region to region.”
Many doctors and public-health experts are hopeful that New England’s high vaccination levels, as well as the immunity some others carry from prior infections, will halt the delta-driven growth this winter. Health experts said the region could also benefit from the rollout of boosters for vulnerable, older people and the possible authorization of shots for children aged 5-11.
“The most reasonable prediction is that cases will increase in the winter, but not as much as last year,” said Isaac Weissfuse, a medical epidemiologist at Cornell University Public Health.
Nationwide, the increase in Delta-driven cases has cooled in recent weeks, hospitalizations are dwindling and epidemiologists expect the death toll too soon. Dr. Weissfuse and other public-health experts say that the extent to which people take precautions such as wearing masks indoors, getting tested and staying home when they feel sick, in addition to vaccination coverage, will help in the fall and winter of COVID-19. will affect its trajectory.
“Things are still shaky,” said Dr. Shah, chief of the CDC in Maine. “There’s still a lot going on, and we’re not out of it yet.”
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Mark Kerouac is the chief executive officer of Baystate Health in Massachusetts. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that his surname was “Keorack” in one instance. (corrected September 30)