NH reports two new coronavirus cases, one from interaction at West Lebanon church service

  • Hope Bible Fellowship in West Lebanon, N.H., canceled services on March 8, 2020, following a new presumptive positive case of the coronavirus that occurred after an adult male had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 at the church on March 1. (Valley News - Maggie Cassidy) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writers
Published: 3/8/2020 8:05:23 AM
Modified: 3/8/2020 10:30:03 PM

WEST LEBANON — Health officials say two new presumptive positive cases of the novel coronavirus have been found in New Hampshire, including one that stems from an interaction at the Hope Bible Fellowship in West Lebanon last weekend. Vermont also has announced its first case.

About 60 people attended the service or coffee social Sunday, March 1, and health care officials are asking them to stay at home and not go out in public through March 15.

Anyone who was at the church and develops symptoms of fever or respiratory illness “should immediately stay home and distance themselves from household members and contact the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control at 603-271-4496 (after-hours: 603-271-5300),” according to a news release issued late Saturday night by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

The new Grafton County case is believed to be linked to a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employee who developed COVID-19 symptoms following a recent trip to Italy (patient 1) and then passed it on to a colleague (patient 2). Patient 2 then attended the church service where he passed it on to the newest patient (patient 3), health officials said.

Patient 2 was not aware at the time that he had been exposed, but shortly thereafter developed systems and tested positive, officials said.

“What we have from our public health investigation is what we call a clearly identified chain of transmission,” Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, said in a news conference Sunday morning in Concord.

Patient 3, an adult male from Grafton County, had contact with the now-confirmed case of COVID-19 at the church on Seminary Hill last Sunday, March 1, at morning service, the release said.

He experienced symptoms — officials did not say exactly when — and underwent testing Saturday.

Health officials are in contact with the churchgoers to see if more so-called community transmission of the potentially fatal virus is occurring. Health officials also announced Sunday that the cases involving patients 1 and 2, initially categorized as “presumptive positive,” have been confirmed as COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Sunday morning, 38 people had tested negative in New Hampshire and four positive, with results from five other tests still pending.

The precautions for Hope Bible Fellowship parishioners, even if they may not come down with the virus, were starting to have a ripple effect.

In an email to the Claremont school community Sunday afternoon, SAU 6 Superintendent Michael Tempesta said a staff member at Maple Avenue Elementary School in that city was among the people at the West Lebanon services March 1.

The unidentified staff member is not showing symptoms but is in self-isolation at home and will not return to school until March 16, Tempesta said.

At Dartmouth College, the school put out a news release saying it would not cancel events, but it is encouraging social distancing, including looking at alternative venues for final exams.

Health officials on Sunday morning refused to identify where the third patient with Grafton County ties works, citing patient privacy; Dartmouth-Hitchcock later in the day issued a news release saying he was not an employee of the Lebanon-based health care system. State officials also said a new case detected in Bennington County, Vermont’s first known COVID-19 case, does not appear to be related to the New Hampshire cases, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock said that case “has no known connection to D-H.”

In West Lebanon, Hope Bible Fellowship canceled services and is working with state officials to contact everyone who attended the coffee social at 9 a.m. or worship services at 10 a.m. on March 1 to stay home and avoid contact with others through March 15 and to monitor for symptoms.

Nobody was at the church Sunday morning when a Valley News reporter visited.

State officials said the church pastor had been working proactively with them since before the newest case even developed to reach out to parishioners.

The pastor, Eric Ramage, did not immediately return a phone message left by the Valley News for comment. Another congregant declined to comment.

The other new New Hampshire patient with presumptive positive COVID-19 — patient 4 — is an adult male from Rockingham County who traveled to Italy and also underwent testing Saturday.

Patients 3 and 4 are isolated at home and being monitored by public health staff professionals. DHHS is investigating to identify and notify individuals who may have been in close contact with either individual. About 150 people are currently being monitored around the state.

“These new cases broaden our investigation and our public health team is working to try and prevent further community transmission,” Chan said in the news release.

“It is important for anybody in our communities who may have fever or other respiratory symptoms to practice social distancing and stay home when ill. We continue to work with hospitals and community organizations to respond to this challenging global COVID-19 outbreak.”

Prior to Saturday night, New Hampshire was dealing with the two since-confirmed cases: patient 1, the DHMC employee who had traveled to Italy and attended an event in White River Junction on Feb. 28 despite being told to self-isolate, and who later tested positive on March 1; and another DHMC employee, patient 2, who was described as a “close contact” of the first.

Meanwhile, Vermont officials announced the first presumptive positive case in that state late Saturday night and also held a news conference Sunday morning.

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said that patient is from Bennington County and is hospitalized in an airborne infection isolation room at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. The state is still investigating, he said, but “at this point in time we don’t think there are any Vermonters involved” in last Sunday’s gatherings at Hope Bible Fellowship.

“It’s not believed to be travel-related as of yet, but we are trying to obtain complete comprehensive information,” Levine said in a news conference. “We are tracing anyone who came into close contact with the individual. We are talking to medical staff to ensure they are cared for. It’s the hard work of protecting public health.”

Vermont officials said they are monitoring 224 people in the state and that 28 others have tested negative for COVID-19 but that new cases are likely.

“We expect, and are prepared for, more cases in Vermont and are taking every action to limit the spread of illness,” the Vermont Department of Health said in a news release Sunday afternoon.

With New Hampshire Town Meeting Day on Tuesday, state officials said they are working with individual communities to help them with prevention measures.

“We are not making any recommendations around mass cancellation of events at this time,” said Elizabeth Daly, the chief of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control at DHHS.

Chan emphasized that the spread in New Hampshire has been limited, thus far, to four cases that were either travel-related or where the exposure can be traced back to someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We certainly understand the concern that communities will have, but we do not want our communities to panic. We want them to feel like they can go about their everyday activities but do want to stress that people have heightened awareness to the situation and take precautions to prevent transmissions” of COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses, he said.

Health officials in Concord said the state had kits to sample about 200 people and had tested around 50 so far and that more kits were expected. They also said it is likely that a mobile medical truck that was used in Lebanon on Thursday to screen and test some pre-identified at-risk people will be deployed again to help “offload the burden” on local providers.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com. John Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.

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