Medical personnel discuss patients that had been admitted for testing for the coronavirus at the entrance Central Maine Medical Center on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maine spiked to record levels on Friday as the virus continues to spread rapidly here with winter approaching.

A record 248 patients were hospitalized with the virus on Friday, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, far surpassing the previous record of 235 set in late September. Seventy-two patients were in critical care beds while 31 were on ventilators. Forty-nine critical care beds were still available across the state.

The rising virus hospitalizations have added to the strain on Maine’s health care providers, with the state’s largest hospital system forced to delay more surgeries this week to ensure beds were available for COVID-19 patients. Health officials are encouraging Mainers to take additional precautions to stave off the latest surge with the holidays approaching.

Transmission of the virus has plateaued in Maine over the past few weeks, but cases have remained stubbornly high, driven by spread in rural counties with lower vaccination rates. As of Wednesday, the most recent data available due to the Veterans Day holiday, the seven-day infection rate in Somerset County — Maine’s least vaccinated county — was more than three times higher than the rate in Cumberland County, which has the state’s highest vaccination rate.

Unvaccinated people continue to be far more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine than vaccinated people, as 71 percent of all Maine people, and 82 percent of adults, are now fully vaccinated.

MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital system, saw a record 95 COVID-19 patients across its facilities as of Friday, said Dora Mills, the system’s chief health improvement officer. Patients are mostly unvaccinated and are younger, on average, than the patients hospitalized earlier in the pandemic, she said. Across the hospital system, 11 of 12 patients on ventilators on Friday were unvaccinated.

The rise in cases has further taxed the hospital system’s resources, forcing doctors to delay more non-emergency surgeries this week, Mills said. They have also seen several children hospitalized with COVID-19 this week.

“It’s very discouraging, particularly to see the surge within a surge,” Mills said.

People who are not yet vaccinated should get the vaccine, she said, while everyone else should continue to wear masks in public settings and consider how to minimize risk if gathering with other households for the holidays, including getting a virus test before attending a family gathering and leaving windows open for additional ventilation.

Mainers who are eligible are also encouraged to get a booster shot to bolster their immunity and reduce their probability of getting a breakthrough case. Mills said she was not aware of any COVID-19 patients at MaineHealth who were hospitalized with the virus after receiving a booster shot, suggesting the additional dose makes a significant difference.

More than 150,000 people in Maine have now received a booster shot, according to state data, but that accounts for only about 16 percent of fully vaccinated people. Mainers older than 65 along with those with pre-existing medical conditions or at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to their work are eligible for boosters, as is anyone of any age who initially received only the single dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

While Friday was a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maine, states with lower vaccination rates have seen even higher hospitalization rates this fall amid rapid spread of the delta variant. Earlier this week, Montana, where just 57 percent of people are fully vaccinated, reported a hospitalization rate more than twice Maine’s current rate, according to its state health department.

Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations largely declined over the past three months, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But numbers have ticked back upward just in the past week, driven by increases in New England, the Midwest and the mountain western region, the data show.