DHHS: Dartmouth-Hitchcock worker first to test positive in NH for COVID-19

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State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan speaks about the positive testing of one individual for COVID-19 at a news conference Monday. From left: U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas, all Democrats, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. Photo/Paula Tracy

CONCORD, NH – An employee of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon who returned from Italy within the past week tested positive in the state laboratory Monday morning for COVID-19, the first case in New Hampshire, officials confirmed at a news conference hours later.

Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist said the individual was tested using appropriate protective clothing and gear.

“We ran the patient’s specimen for COVID-19 and those (results) were returned just an hour or two ago showing a positive test result for COVID-19,” Chan said at the news conference, flanked by New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Chris Sununu.

The test result is being shipped to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation but officials in New Hampshire are treating the illness as a presumptive first case of the Coronavirus in the state.

“We will not wait for that confirmation to begin our investigation,” Chan said.

This individual traveled to Italy and within five to seven days of returning to New Hampshire and developed symptoms which are not considered serious at this time, officials said. He is in quarantine at home and being monitored. The individual is not being identified by name but is an adult male who lives in Grafton County.

The state’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Chris Sununu were given a briefing on the situation and the state’s preparedness Monday morning at the New Hampshire Hospital Association’s offices on Airport Road.

At the news conference, they urged the public to stay home if they feel sick, wash their hands and if their hands are not clean, avoid contact with hands to mouth, nose.

“Travel advisories around this epidemic are rapidly changing,” Chan said, suggesting that for those who may have already traveled, symptoms present within five days of travel and they should look for symptoms of fever or respiratory distress.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center set up a command center at 9 a.m. Monday morning and is working to get more information, specifically who may have had contact with this individual and to reach out to people who may have had contact.

Officials said the individual was tested on Saturday.

Sununu held the news conference the day after announcements that a few school districts were asking students who traveled to Italy during the school vacation to stay home in quarantine.

About 35 Kearsarge Regional High School students and staff traveled to Italy and 40 from Winnacunnet High School in Hampton were asked to stay home for two weeks.

And 11 students from Timberlane Regional High in Plaistow, and their siblings, have also been asked to stay home for two weeks after a trip to Italy.

Sununu said he planned to speak with Vice President Mike Pence on Monday and other governors to share best practices and look for ways to protect the public from the disease.

He said on Sunday night he spoke with Vermont Governor Phil Scott about the issue and they discussed the shared border with Canada. Sununu said both of the state’s Departments of Education and the Departments of Health and Human Services are coordinating on the virus.

He said three school districts have agreed to ask those students who traveled abroad to stay out of school and at home for the next 14 days. Sununu said in all cases, the new Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services would be the lead for school health issues.

Chan said there have been a total of four residents of the state who have been tested for COVID-19 but this is the first and only confirmed case in the state lab in Concord.

Chan said the state has the capacity and ability to handle the virus and to contain the spread.

The state has responded to Sars, H1N1, and Ebola and, “I have every confidence in our staff,” Chan said.

U.S. Rep. Annie McLane Kuster, D-NH, said she anticipates a supplemental appropriation to deal with COVID-19 will come to the floor in Congress this week. She said there are simple things people can do to keep themselves and their families safe.

“If you have symptoms then reach out to your physician,” Kuster stressed.

NPR reported on Monday that four more people in the Seattle, Wash., area have died after contracting COVID-19. The report said the total of deaths in the United States, including Washington, stands at six.

The CDC is predicting that the virus will continue spreading in the United States.

“More cases of COVID-19 are likely to be identified in the coming days, including more cases in the United States. It’s also likely that person-to-person spread will continue to occur, including in communities in the United States. It’s likely that at some point, widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur,” the CDC stated on its website.

The CDC website also included the following statement: “Widespread transmission of COVID-19 would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time. Schools, childcare centers, workplaces, and other places for mass gatherings may experience more absenteeism. Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths.

“Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and transportation industry may also be affected. Health care providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed. At this time, there is no vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and no medications approved to treat it. Nonpharmaceutical interventions would be the most important response strategy.”

Under the heading of CDC Response, the following is posted:

“Global efforts at this time are focused concurrently on containing the spread and mitigating the impact of this virus. The federal government is working closely with state, local, tribal, and territorial partners, as well as public health partners, to respond to this public health threat. The public health response is multi-layered, with the goal of detecting and minimizing introductions of this virus in the United States. CDC is operationalizing all of its pandemic preparedness and response plans, working on multiple fronts to meet these goals, including specific measures to prepare communities to respond to local transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. There is an abundance of pandemic guidance developed in anticipation of an influenza pandemic that is being repurposed and adapted for a COVID-19 pandemic.”

The NH Department of Health and Human Services issued the following press release shortly before 4 p.m. Monday

CONCORD, NH – The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Public Health Services (DPHS) announces the first presumptive positive test result in New Hampshire for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new 2019 coronavirus. This individual is an adult male from Grafton County and is currently isolated at home with mild symptoms. DHHS conducted testing today on the individual after they returned from travel to Italy and notified their healthcare provider after developing fever and respiratory symptoms within 14 days of travel.

“This morning, we identified the first presumptive positive test result for COVID-19 in New Hampshire. This positive test is in an individual who traveled to Italy and developed symptoms consistent with COVID-19 within several days of travel. At this time, there is no evidence of more widespread community transmission in New Hampshire,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan. “The State is conducting an investigation to determine potential exposure to other people in order to quickly isolate and test any additional people with suspect coronavirus.”

The NH Public Health Laboratories (PHL) conducted the test and identified the presumptive positive result. The patient’s specimen is being sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today for confirmatory testing. The CDC is conducting confirmatory tests on all state laboratory tests that are found to be presumptively positive for COVID-19.

DHHS has started a contact investigation and is reaching out to individuals who may have been in direct contact with the individual. Public health professionals will monitor any close contacts and ask them to self-quarantine for 14 days following their last exposure to monitor for potential symptoms of the virus. Household contacts of the person who has presumptively tested positive have been self-quarantining at home since the state and healthcare providers determined that the individual met the criteria to be evaluated for COVID-19.

The U.S. expects to detect more introductions of COVID-19 through travel, as well as more person-to-person spread and community transmission of this virus. The CDC and New Hampshire are conducting aggressive containment efforts, including ongoing use of isolation and quarantine measures to decrease introductions and spread of the virus.

Because COVID-19, and all respiratory illnesses, are most commonly spread through respiratory droplets, residents should take the same precautions as those recommended to prevent the spread of influenza:

•  Stay home and avoid public places when sick (i.e. social distancing)

•  Cover mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing

•  Wash hands frequently

•  Avoid being within 6 feet (close contact) of a person who is sick

•  Avoid sharing drinks, smoking/vaping devices, or other utensils or objects that may transmit saliva

•  Disinfect frequently touched surfaces

There is sustained and widespread transmission of COVID-19 in several countries. The CDC has currently issued travel advisories for the following countries, but given the rapidly changing situation, these advisories are frequently changing:

•  Level 3 Travel Warning (avoid all nonessential travel due to widespread community transmission): China, Iran, Italy and South Korea

•  Level 2 Travel Alert (practice enhanced precautions due to sustained community transmission): Japan

•  Level 1 Travel Watch (practice usual precautions but limited community spread has been reported): Hong Kong

For more information on COVID-19 in NH, please visit https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/cdcs/2019-ncov.htm. For the latest information from the CDC, please visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

About this Author

Paula Tracy

Veteran reporter Paula Tracy writes for InDepthNH.org