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NH officials say not to panic as pandemic declared, more schools close

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2020 10:17:56 PM
Modified: 3/11/2020 10:17:45 PM

WEST LEBANON — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu urged residents not to panic on Wednesday, as the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic due to COVID-19, a second person in Vermont tested “presumptive positive” and two universities in Vermont moved to online-only courses.

On Wednesday evening, the Vermont Department of Health said a male in his 70s from Chittenden County is being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington after testing “presumptive positive” for COVID-19. An investigation is underway to identify anyone who may have been in close contact with him.

Earlier in the day, South Royalton-based Vermont Law School announced in a news release it will close its campus to students beginning Monday through at least March 30 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. By next Wednesday, all VLS classes will be moved to the school’s online learning platform.

Though the school community has not yet had any known cases of the virus, school officials said there have been other cases confirmed in the region and more are expected.

“After consultation with other schools and state experts, we need to take steps as a community to help limit the spread of the coronavirus,” the school said in the release. “Our best opportunity to do so is to reduce the density of our population on our campus, thereby decreasing the risk of community spread.”

The University of Vermont canceled classes Monday and Tuesday and is moving to online classes March 18.

Both schools currently are on spring break.

Sununu, speaking during an afternoon news conference in Concord, also asked residents to follow health officials’ recommendations for preventing the spread of the disease. He urged those who have been asked to self-quarantine at home due to travel or exposure to a known case of COVID-19, the respiratory disease first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, to stay out of public spaces for 14 days.

New Hampshire “still remains a state of low risk, and we want to keep it that way,” Sununu said.

Of the five individuals in New Hampshire who have so far tested positive, including three in Grafton County, two are people who had recently traveled to Italy, one of the hotspots of the disease, New Hampshire State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan said during the conference. The other three are direct contacts of people known to have COVID-19, he said.

State officials “have not yet identified broader community transmission,” he said. Without that, state officials are not recommending that events be canceled. Instead, they are asking that people stay home if they are sick or have been asked to self-quarantine.

“We want people to feel empowered,” Chan said. “We do not want people to live in fear or panic.”

He noted, however, that some people are at an increased risk of developing serious symptoms such as people over the age of 60 and those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or compromised immune systems. As a result, Chan said state health officials are working with nursing homes and assisted living communities to ensure that they are aware of the increased risk and taking steps to mitigate it.

At least one such community in the Upper Valley was asking people not to visit beginning Wednesday. In a Facebook post, leaders at Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community in Windsor announced the change in their policies.

“There is a risk that people who appear healthy will enter our nursing home and assisted living centers and infect residents,” according to the post from Patricia Horn, the community’s executive director; Cathy Leone, Cedar Hill administrator; and JoAnne Blanchard, the Village at Cedar Hill executive director.

“In past viral epidemics, public health officials delayed recommending prevention,” they said. “We have learned from those epidemics that the sooner we limit interactions with each other and wash our hands frequently, the more slowly the virus will spread.”

Treating the sick

As of Feb. 28, Vermont’s hospitals had 116 negative pressure rooms that can be used to treat patients who are seriously ill with the disease, Vermont Health Department spokesman Ben Truman said in an email on Tuesday. The first Vermont case identified in Bennington County is serious enough to require hospitalization, as is the Chittenden County case; none of the five in New Hampshire are.

Some clinical space can be converted to infection-containment space if needed, said Jeff Tieman, the president of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems in a Tuesday email.

“Those decisions and changes will be made as circumstances require,” Tieman said.

In New Hampshire, hospitals’ isolation capacity ranges “from private rooms to (those) fully outfitted with negative pressure capabilities,” said New Hampshire Hospital Association Executive Vice President Kathy Bizarro-Thunberg in an email. In addition, portable isolation units can transform a private room into a negative pressure isolation room.

“New Hampshire hospitals are ready to meet the needs of all patients in our state including situations involving high threat infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and influenza,” she said.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock officials did not respond to emailed questions about testing capacity, how many negative pressure rooms there are at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon and how the hospital would manage a coronavirus-related surge situation.

Demand for testing

Vermont and New Hampshire each have received $4.9 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support COVID-19 response, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

One part of that response in both states is ramping up testing in order to determine whether community transmission is widespread.

By March 3, Vermont health officials had conducted just six tests for three patients; by Tuesday of this week, 40 tests were being performed for 20 patients, Truman said.

While there have been reports of shortages of test kits around the country, Truman said, “We have enough test kits to meet demand at this time and don’t anticipate a shortage. We are monitoring the supply chain via the CDC on a regular basis.”

New Hampshire has 250 test kits on hand, Beth Daly, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said in a Wednesday email.

In addition to the public health laboratory, New Hampshire patients can get tested through private testing companies such as Quest Diagnostics with an assessment and order from a health care provider, Chan said.

D-H officials have said that they are working to be able to conduct tests at DHMC. In a YouTube update on Tuesday, Chief Clinical Officer Ed Merrens said D-H was working to validate its test and hoped to begin conducting the tests within “a couple of days.”

Staffing levels

Vermont has team of five microbiologists to do the testing work, with the ability to add six more as needed, Truman said. The state has the capacity to conduct testing seven days a week and to perform 78 tests per day.

In addition, Vermont has a team of 10 epidemiologists and public health nurses at the Health Department central office and public health nurses at all 12 district offices of the health department, who are part of Infectious Disease/Epidemiology program, that are working on tracing contacts of people known to be infected with the virus, Truman said.

As of Tuesday, that level of staffing was sufficient to keep up with demand, Truman said. If needed, the state also can divert staff members, such as those who work on sexually transmitted disease intervention, to work on virus-related issues.

New Hampshire conducts more than 8,000 contact investigations per year on a wide variety of infectious diseases, Daly said. DHHS has 10 disease investigation staff members and is also diverting employees from elsewhere in the department, she said. She described these investigations as a “routine activity of public health.”

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




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