Dartmouth-Hitchcock employee tests ‘presumptive positive’ for coronavirus

  • Dr. Benjamin Chan, New Hampshire's state epidemiologist, announces the state's first case of the new COVID-19 virus on Monday, March 2, 2020, in Concord, N.H. Chan was joined at the news conference by members of the state's Congressional delegation, from left: U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Chan, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, and Gov. Chris Sununu. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) Holly Ramer

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/2/2020 8:53:37 AM
Modified: 3/3/2020 10:27:46 AM

LEBANON — A Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employee tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, but the “presumptive” results still need to be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Hampshire health officials said. It is the first known case of the virus in New Hampshire.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock officials later on Monday said, “At this time we know of no exposure to any patients in clinical areas, and there is no on-going risk to patients. At present, the hospital remains open and safe.”

The man lives in Grafton County and is currently isolated at home with mild symptoms, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services said in a news release. He developed a fever and respiratory symptoms within 14 days of traveling to Italy, one of the hotspots of the worldwide outbreak of the strain of coronavirus that was first identified in December in Wuhan city, China.

“This is not an instance we believe that represents wider community transmission,” said Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, who first announced the results at a news conference Monday morning in Concord with state officials.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO Joanne Conroy, who also attended Monday’s news conference, confirmed that the patient is a DHMC employee and that the Lebanon-based medical center on Monday morning set up an incident command center, which includes 20 individuals with different expertise relevant to the issue at hand.

“There is a very, very structured way that they develop what are near-term issues that we need to address and what are long-term issues that we need to address in order to protect the public,” Conroy said in a WMUR video of the news conference.

By 8:30 p.m., D-H said it had notified anyone who had potentially been exposed to the employee who tested positively for the virus and asked them to stay home and self-quarantine for up to 14 days.

“This was done out of an abundance of caution,” D-H said in an update on its website. “If you haven’t been contacted, you did not have exposure to the employee who tested positive and you do not need to do anything differently at this time.”

Gov. Chris Sununu said that the state is prepared to address the threat the virus presents.

“We know that the risk level does remain low, but we are prepared and we are going to remain prepared to deal with any issue that might arise as this public health situation continues to develop,” Sununu said during the conference.

Through the incident command center, D-H is putting to work a response plan for a positive test of COVID-19 that has been in the works since January, D-H spokesman Rick Adams said in a Monday email.

In an update on the health system’s Facebook page at 4 p.m., D-H officials said, they had “now identified all staff who may have had close contact with the individual” and were in the process of contacting those employees directly and instructing them to stay home to prevent additional risk of exposure.

State and D-H officials declined to say what job the DHMC employee performs. He is the fourth person in New Hampshire to be tested for the coronavirus. The three previous cases were determined not to be COVID-19.

The D-H employee tested positive in a test conducted by the New Hampshire Public Health Laboratories on Monday. The state then sent the patient’s specimen to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmatory testing, which the CDC is doing for all state laboratory tests found to be presumptively positive for COVID-19.

Roughly 2% of reported coronavirus cases have proven deadly and some experts say the death rate could be even lower. The global death toll as of Monday had passed 3,000 people, with the United States reporting six deaths in Washington state and a new case in New York.

Health officials said they expect to see more introductions of COVID-19 through travel, as well as more person-to-person spread and community transmission of this virus, according to the DHHS release.

People can help to contain the virus by staying home when they are sick, washing their hands frequently and thoroughly, and avoiding being in close contact with people who are ill. In addition, the CDC recommends that people avoid non-essential travel to China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.

DHHS spokesman Jake Leon said in a phone interview on Monday that health officials are “making sure people take (the risk of the virus) seriously without panicking.”

DHHS first announced it was testing this fourth suspected case on Sunday evening, but did not connect the patient to the Upper Valley.

Then Conroy alerted employees in an email late Sunday night that the state was testing and observing a D-H employee as a possible COVID-19 case.

The email from Conroy did not indicate when the employee presented with symptoms at DHMC but said the patient’s samples were collected late Saturday night.

“Laboratory testing ... ruled out more common respiratory illnesses such as influenza or the common cold,” Conroy wrote in the message.

The hospital is posting updates about the virus on its website: www.dartmouth-hitchcock.org/patient-education/coronavirus.html. Leon said the state will provide additional updates as they’re available.

Patients and employees leaving DHMC on Monday afternoon seemed unsurprised that the virus had made its way to the Upper Valley. They were unconcerned about their own well-being, and more focused on travel restrictions and the impact of the virus on the global economy.

As he left the hospital on Monday, Hartland resident Gordon Holmes, 73, said the arrival of the coronavirus is unfortunate, but he said he has confidence in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s efforts to limit its scope.

Holmes said people inside DHMC didn’t seem “overly concerned.”

For his part, Holmes said he won’t miss an upcoming trip to Florida, but he doesn’t plan to make any trips abroad.

“It’s a good reason to stay home, I guess,” he said.

Newport resident Dan Thompson, 76, said he wasn’t “really concerned,” but “I wouldn’t want to come to a place like this too often,” pointing to the hospital behind him.

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

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