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As N.H. changes its approach to COVID-19 data, local hospitals turn to other sources to guide their surge planning

The inside of Memorial Hospital's testing site, which is works is filled with vials, computers and desks, and cleaning supplies.
Alli Fam
The scene inside one of the testing sites operated by Memorial Hospital, in North Conway, last summer.

For Dr. Matt Dunn, Chief Medical Officer at Memorial Hospital in North Conway, data has been an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19.

Every day, he consults global data on new variants and other data modeling from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. He also religiously checks New Hampshire’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

Having reliable numbers about how COVID-19 is spreading — and how the virus is evolving — helps Dunn and other hospital leaders make decisions about staffing and plan for potential strains on their health system. But that data is becoming trickier to navigate.

New Hampshire health officials recently stopped issuing daily COVID-19 updates, a fixture of their pandemic response since early on in the pandemic; instead, they issue weekly data briefs and post other updates to their online dashboard.

State officials have said it’s been increasingly challenging to rely on, and track, individual test results, as more people are testing at home and don’t report those results to public health authorities. They’re also working on anew public wastewater surveillance project, which will show changes in COVID levels in cities and towns across the state, but it’s not online yet.

The state’s decision to scale back its daily COVID-19 data updates has prompted some frustration among local healthcare leaders.

“I think reverting back to a daily report would be very helpful,” Androscoggin Valley Hospital President Mike Peterson said on a recent call with other North Country healthcare providers.

At Memorial Hospital, Dunn has become increasingly reliant on internal data to fill in the gaps left by the state and federal government.

After more than two years of this pandemic, Dunn said he can use historical data to make predictions about how the hospital will need to respond to potential surges. For example, if the test positivity rate in the region approaches 20%, he knows a lot of staff absences are likely to follow.

Based on the numbers he’s looking at now, including rising test positivity at clinics with his health system, Dunn’s predicting things will get worse before they start to get better.

“In the next few weeks, we'll likely have staff or resource constraints,” he said. “And we're going to have challenges, I think, with transfers.”

In Manchester, Elliot Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kevin Desrosiers said he is still using state test data to help predict trends — with the assumption that it will be a significant undercount.

But Desrosiers said making accurate predictions has been hard throughout the pandemic, especially with so many factors changing between each surge: new variants, vaccines and treatments. This is just the latest challenge.

And even if some data is murky, Desrosiers has been buoyed by at least one trend in the last few months.

“Despite the fact that we’ve admitted many [COVID patients],” he said, “our ICU activity has been minimal.”

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