fb-pixel Skip to main content

N.H., Maine activate National Guard as hospitals strain under COVID-19 surge

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters in her cabinet room, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.David Sharp/Associated Press

Two New England states are turning to the National Guard to help manage the COVID-19 winter surge at hospitals and long-term care facilities struggling to treat high volumes of cases.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said the state’s Executive Council on Wednesday approved funding to bring in “strike teams” from outside the state to supplement staff at long-term care facilities, and the New Hampshire National Guard will deploy 70 members to hospitals to help with everything from clerical work to food service.

The Republican governor also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending a team of 24 to 36 doctors, nurses, and other health care workers to Elliot Hospital in Manchester to help ease the burden of COVID-19 patients. The agency also is sending 30 paramedics to the some of the other struggling hospitals, he said.

Advertisement



As of Wednesday, there were 462 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in New Hampshire, nearly 40 percent higher than the previous peak in January, the state said.

Maine Governor Janet Mills also said Wednesday that her state will deploy National Guard troops to help alleviate the strain of a record surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Up to 75 troops, in addition to those that have already been deployed to administer tests and vaccines, will be sent to nursing centers across the state, where they’ll take up clinical support duties like patient transport and aiding with food services to allow the facilities to take on more critical patients coming from hospitals.

Mills’ announcement comes as the state grapples with a sustained surge of COVID-19 cases and record hospitalizations, driven “almost entirely by the Delta variant.”

“Our hospitals are being stretched thin, health care is jeopardized for those who need it, and our health care workers, heroic as they are, are more exhausted than ever before,” Mills, a Democrat, said at a press conference with Maine health leaders Wednesday afternoon. “We’re at a tipping point.”

Advertisement



A record high 379 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 in Maine on Wednesday — 117 of those patients are in critical care units and are 60 on ventilators, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said at the briefing. That’s in spite of Maine being one of the most vaccinated states in the country, with 73 percent of people eligible for the shot fully vaccinated and 83 percent with at least one dose.

“The pandemic is at its peak,” said Shah. “We expect the number of reported cases in each day’s update to stay at current levels and likely increase in coming days.”

The National Guard deployments aim to relieve the “bottleneck” some hospitals and nursing centers are currently struggling with, Mills said. By handling clinical duties, they’ll allow nursing centers to accept more critical stage patients being discharged from the hospital, in turn freeing up hospital resources.

“Enhancing those facilities’ ability to accept more patients will relieve the bottleneck, that will then allow hospitals to provide more in-patient care for more people with COVID-19 and other serious health problems,” Mills said.

Some of the newly deployed troops will focus on administering monoclonal antibodies, the lab-produced treatment that is aimed at patients at high risk of severe disease.

Distributing the treatment, Mills said, will “keep Maine people out of the hospital and out of critical care if administered in timely fashion and preserve ICU capacity for everyone that needs it.”

Advertisement



The vast majority of people currently in the hospital with the virus, Mills said, are unvaccinated, and rates are higher in rural counties, where fewer people are inoculated.

More than 60 percent of the COVID-19 patients in hospitals are unvaccinated, and the rate is as high as 80 percent at some facilities, Shah said.

She warned of the “imminent” arrival of the Omicron variant in the state, which has raised fears among US health officials of another surge in infections. While researchers are still searching for answers as to the variant’s transmissibility and potential to cause serious illness, Mills said people will have a better shot against Omicron if they are vaccinated.

“All the more reason to get vaccinated now,” she said.

The announcement came as the state’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center, said it has postponed about 50 percent of surgeries because of the burden of COVID-19 on the facility.

Material from Globe wire reports was used.


Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.