Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center is pictured on Aug. 27, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maine dropped by more than a quarter as of Thursday, a staggering change in a state where the delta variant surge and a workforce shortage have taxed health care providers for weeks.

Hospitalizations dropped from 211 last Friday to 152 on Thursday, for a 28 percent decrease that played out differently across Maine’s biggest hospitals. Brewer-based Northern Light Health had 33 patients systemwide, compared with 65 a week prior, while MaineHealth had 60 cases system wide last Wednesday, up from 48 cases on Thursday.

The decline is providing relief at hospitals that have been slammed in the last six weeks by rising cases of COVID-19, primarily among people who are not fully vaccinated, but it is unclear whether the positive gains will last given a case rate that has remained relatively steady.

At Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, which was hit hardest by the recent surge, the number of COVID-19 patients admitted declined from 40 to 22 for a 45 percent decrease over the week. At MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, there were 10 COVID-19 patients, a 50 percent decrease from last week. At MaineHealth’s Maine Medical Center in Portland, COVID-19 cases stood at 25 on Thursday, a 24 percent decrease from a week ago.

The decrease seemed to be happening across the state, said Jeffrey Austin, a lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association. But while having fewer COVID-19 patients takes away immediate stress, hospitals are still struggling to find workers ahead of Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccine requirement for health care workers taking effect near the end of the month.

“I think the biggest relief from stress is knowing the trend may end,” Austin said. “The appearance of what hopefully looks like a peak does well for the stress levels.”

Hospital representatives were cautiously optimistic about the changes they were seeing. Andrew Soucier, a spokesperson for Northern Light Health, said the decrease was welcome, but was unlikely to drop further as transmission in Penobscot County remains high. EMMC saw its highest COVID-19 patient record during the surge last month, at 59 patients.

MaineGeneral Health is still struggling with discharging patients into long-term care facilities dealing with staff shortages of their own, said Jennifer Riggs, the chief nursing officer.

Fewer hospitalizations overall indicates that Mainers might be getting less sick, said Robert Horsburgh Jr., a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, something he said could be attributable to vaccination rates creeping up.

“If intensive care beds remained full, hospitals would have to start making pretty hard choices when they’ve also got to deal with heart attacks and car crashes,” he said.