By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – New Hampshire may be getting an inaccurate picture of what people could face due to COVID-19, the highly contagious coronavirus that has the whole world on edge, with one expert suggesting there are upwards of 300 people already infected here, not the 55 now reported by public health officials.
That’s because of limitations on testing in New Hampshire, first because there weren’t enough test kits available early on, and now that there are enough kits, there is a new shortage of materials needed to conduct the tests, including appropriate swabs.
On Friday, Gov. Chris Sununu and New Hampshire’s Congressional Delegation sent a letter urging President Trump to take additional steps to speed up the production and distribution of critical medical supplies needed to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.
“New Hampshire and states across the country are running dangerously low on supplies needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, including personal protective equipment, swabs needed to conduct diagnostic tests, and ventilators,” the letter said. “States alone cannot address these shortages, especially when they are competing against each other and the federal government to purchase available resources.”
“While we have world-class medical professionals, first responders, and hospital facilities in New Hampshire, the lack of basic supplies is threatening our ability to combat this crisis,” the letter states.
On Thursday, state Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan asked people who have the symptoms of COVID-19 but haven’t been able to get a test, as well as patients who have tested positive, to stay home for seven days and at least 72 hours after their symptoms diminish. The state didn’t respond to questions seeking clarification of the new quarantine recommendations on Friday.
“There will come a time and even now we need to prioritize testing for those who are more seriously ill, people who are hospitalized or those who are at risk of spreading it further into the community,” Chan said.
Steve Goodman, a professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University, said without widespread testing, it is impossible to know the severity of the problem.
“Modelers have estimated that in the absence of any suppression measures, roughly 30 to 60 percent of a population is likely to be infected,” Goodman said in an email.
Aggressive measures early on or more measures if the epidemic progresses can severely tamp it down, as it did in China, Goodman said.
“What we need is intensive testing which we can’t seem to muster right now, social distancing, and case tracking and isolation when the numbers get small, as they seem to be in New Hampshire, although you probably have at least 300 infected people walking around,” Goodman said.
Goodman echoed what state Sen. Dr. Tom Sherman, a gastroenterologist, has been saying about increased testing and urging people to stay home because there is no way to know who is infected without the test. He wants the message to be very clear that people should stay home.
“Failure to act to prevent transmission could well result in a large enough population of people with COVID-19 illness requiring hospitalization to overwhelm our state healthcare system and especially our hospitals,” Sherman wrote in an opinion piece.
On Friday, the state announced 11 new positive test results for COVID-19, all adults, including six men and five women, bringing the total to 55. They live in Grafton (3), Rockingham (2), Manchester (1), Hillsborough County other than Manchester and Nashua (1), Carroll (1), Merrimack (1), Coos (1) and Cheshire (1).
The positive test results are the first cases in Coos and Cheshire counties. Community-based transmission has now been identified in Carroll, Cheshire, Grafton, Merrimack and Rockingham counties and the city of Manchester.
A new study by Harvard Global Health Institute shows that hospitals in New Hampshire and across the country may need many more regular and intensive care beds depending on the severity of the epidemic.
Vanessa Stafford, vice president of communications at the New Hampshire Hospital, said hospitals and the hospital association are taking steps to plan for any surge that might occur.
“Working together, and with partners including the Department of Health & Human Services, Division of Public Health, the Granite State Health Care Coalition, other state and federal government officials including state epidemiologists, hospitals have plans in place in case of an event, like COVID-19, to provide additional temporary beds to treat a surge in patients,” Stafford said.
That includes should additional resources be needed, planning is also underway to procure beds and locations as alternative care sites to meet an increased demand, she said.
“This preparation is critical, and New Hampshire residents have a vital role to play. By practicing social distancing, diligently hand washing, and not utilizing the Emergency Department unless there is a true emergency, such as significant difficulty breathing, residents can help preserve precious hospital resources for those that truly need them,” she said.
Stafford said there are limited supplies of ventilators and hospital beds, which is why hospitals and public health officials across the country are urging the public to follow the guidance of the CDC and other public health leaders on social distancing and other actions.
“The best way not to overtax the health care system is to keep more people healthy,” Stafford said.