NH tests for coronavirus at Lebanon airport

Valley News Staff Writers
Published: 3/5/2020 10:39:18 PM
Modified: 3/5/2020 10:41:32 PM

WEST LEBANON — State health officials brought in a mobile medical truck Thursday afternoon to screen some Upper Valley residents who may have come into contact with two Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employees who are both presumed to be positive for the new coronavirus.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services deployed the truck to Lebanon Municipal Airport to “expedite screening” of individuals who were believed to have had close contact with the two DHMC employees, said DHHS spokesman Jake Leon. The location was chosen to “make it easy for them to participate and to protect their health and privacy,” he said.

Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said the city provided a hangar at the airport where the drive-thru screening could take place.

Christopoulos said people could provide their medical information and, if merited, give a test swab sample to be sent to the state lab in Concord without exiting their vehicles.

Christopoulos, who was speaking from Florida where he is on vacation, said he doesn’t know how many people were tested, but that the mobile screening was set up at the remote location to keep people who may have COVID-19 away from the general public, including at hospitals.

He said authorities wanted “minimal impact anywhere else in the city, and by not having them in contact with a lot of people,” he said.

A pilot from the Upper Valley said there was a sizable police presence, and he was prevented from accessing his plane early Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth canceled classes on Thursday over concerns a student may have been exposed to the new coronavirus after attending the same party as the first DHMC employee to test positive.

Several people in a position to know have told the Valley News the first employee is a medical resident, and Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine identified him as a “physician trainee” in a news conference Thursday.

After a student told Tuck administrators they now had flu-like symptoms, “Out of an abundance of caution, Tuck decided to cancel the last remaining day of classes for the term,” Dr. Lisa Adams and Joshua Keniston, co-chairs of the Dartmouth COVID-19 Task Force, said in an email to the Dartmouth community. “The student who is feeling unwell is self-isolating and is waiting to learn if they should be tested for COVID-19.”

Tuck will hold exams for core classes online and is planning to hold spring classes as usual. The college has exams scheduled for next week and spring break begins next Thursday and runs through March 29.

The cancellation comes two days after state health officials announced that the first person to test positive for COVID-19 attended a private event connected to Tuck at The Engine Room in White River Junction on Friday, Feb. 28. In addition to Tuck students, several medical residents from DHMC also attended.

The DHMC medical resident, who tested “presumptive positive” for the virus on Monday, went to the event despite being told to self-isolate after going to an D-H ambulatory clinic earlier on Friday. Officials said he was exhibiting symptoms after returning from a trip to Italy, one of the hotspots of the strain of coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan city in China in December.

“Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health recognizes that, unfortunately, an employee who was directed by Dartmouth-Hitchcock to self-quarantine did not comply. We understand the public’s concern. All appropriate procedures were followed by Dartmouth-Hitchcock and we are confident that no patients at Dartmouth-Hitchcock were put at risk of exposure,” D-H CEO Joanne Conroy said in a statement Thursday evening.

On Tuesday health officials announced a second DHMC employee, a “close contact” of the first, had also tested positive for the virus.

State officials have since issued an official order of isolation to the employee who attended The Engine Room party.

Health officials are asking “a handful of people” who were at the party and had close contact with the man to self-isolate for 14 days, New Hampshire State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

The second man to test positive is also in self-isolation. Due to close contact with the second man, four Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth students are being monitored by NH DHHS for COVID-19, Dartmouth announced on Wednesday.

In a phone interview Thursday evening, Dr. Edward Merrens, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s chief clinical officer, said the health system had placed some employees on quarantine, and administered some test swabs that were sent to the state lab, but declined to divulge how many. He also said the quarantine issue is being revisited on a daily basis.

“We are taking a very judicious approach to how we are going to manage these folks, because we take care of people in the community, and these are our colleagues,” Merrens said.

Merrens and other Dartmouth-Hitchcock officials also refused to say what jobs the two infected employees have at DHMC, but said dating back to around last Thursday, the two had not had contact with patients.

Merrens said there have not been any additional COVID-19 cases beyond the initial two and added, “We feel very happy about our processes in place that have protected not only our employees but more importantly, the people we take care of, so we think our measures we put in place have worked.”

But people around the Upper Valley were taking precautions this week. Following Monday’s announcement of the first positive test in New Hampshire, first-year Tuck student Gunnar Esiason asked to be excused from classes. Esiason, who has cystic fibrosis, is now in western Massachusetts with his fiancee’s family.

He has discussed the situation with his medical providers and all agree he is at a “low risk” of having been exposed to the virus, but he made the move “out of an abundance of caution.”

Esiason said he has faith in Dartmouth and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services to protect the community.

“Everyone feels safe,” Esiason said. “No one feels like they’re in peril.”

Samuel Neff, a Dartmouth junior who also has cystic fibrosis, had a busy day planned on Thursday with classes and club meetings, he said in an email.

“Aside from washing my hands more frequently and being careful about what I touch, I’m pretty much operating as normal,” Neff said.

But Esiason, who was invited but did not attend last Friday’s mixer for Tuck students and DHMC medical residents, said he was worried that a hospital employee would go out in public after he had been told not to.

“I’m super-concerned that a health professional is the one to have sort of started all this,” Esiason said. As someone with cystic fibrosis, Esiason said he relies on the health system heavily.

The Engine Room, the site of the Tuck event last week, has had cleaning crews in to take extra care in disinfecting the space, as recommended by health officials. It also canceled three days of events this week, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, according to general manager and owner Brandon Fox.

As of Thursday, there were no new positive tests in New Hampshire, according to the NH DHHS. Aside from the unknown number of tests said to have taken place at Lebanon airport, four new patients were being tested and 16 people have tested negative. In Vermont, five people had tested negative and no cases of COVID-19 had been discovered as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for people returning from traveling in countries with a Level 3 Health Travel Notice — China, Iran, Italy and South Korea — due to widespread community transmission of COVID-19. The new guidance asks people returning from trips to those places to self-quarantine at home for 14 days after their return. The self-quarantine restriction previously had applied only to China.

“For these new returning travelers, we understand and appreciate that staying at home may be difficult, both mentally and logistically,” Levine said in a Thursday news release. “But I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for helping prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.”

Conroy, the D-H Health president and CEO, said she and Merrens will host a Facebook Live talk at 11:30 a.m. Friday to provide updates and answer questions about COVID-19. Questions can be sent to social@hitchcock.org and the event can be seen at www.facebook.com/DartmouthHitchcock.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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