Back in the spring, the first wave of coronavirus cases led many states, including New Hampshire, to shut down non-essential businesses and close schools. Those moves worked, flattening the curve and reducing new cases.
After a relatively quiet period this summer, infections and hospitalizations are back on the rise in New Hampshire, but so far, the state's response has been relatively muted compared to earlier this year. NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with NHPR reporter Jordyn Haime about why.
Rick Ganley: One major concern, Jordyn, this spring was that our hospitals would get overwhelmed with cases, not have enough ventilators or even basic protective supplies, similar to what we saw in New York City. Are local hospitals better prepared now than they were then?
Jordyn Haime: Well, the short answer to that is yes, and that's for a few simple but really important reasons. The first is that the supply chain for PPE, that would be things like masks, and gloves and cleaning supplies, that's a lot more reliable now than it was in the spring. And the same goes for ventilators. There's much easier access to those right now. Another reason is that doctors have learned a lot about how to best treat patients with COVID-19, what therapies are effective and when to deliver them. And finally, there's just a lot more space right now in hospitals. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 is rising statewide, but it is still about half of where it was when it peaked in the spring. Hospitals have been preparing some of those overflow spaces if they need them in areas like conference rooms or other areas, but those backups aren't being used yet. Hospitals say that they are ready, though, if they do need them.
Rick Ganley: What about staffing, Jordyn? I mean, there's been an issue in nursing homes in particular, where a shortage of caregivers has been compounded by COVID-19. We've got a high profile case right now in Newport. Is that the same in hospitals?
Jordyn Haime: To some extent, yes, staffing could become a challenge if hospitalizations continue at their current trend. I spoke with Elliot Hospital president Dr. Greg Baxter about this earlier this week, and he said they've been able to train some nurses who aren't normally in the ICU to assist with the treatment of COVID-19 patients. The challenge is that that might put pressure on other day-to-day needs of the hospital like outpatient services. Here's how he put it:
Greg Baxter: So we may be dialing down some things if there's a capacity constraint to make sure we can always maintain that capacity. We're not there today. I think we're a far ways from that, but we've seen those numbers happen before and we know what to do.
Rick Ganley: So hospitals are making contingency plans, but what about the state government, both here and across New England? What are they doing to slow or curb this new wave of the virus?
Jordyn Haime: In recent days and weeks, we have seen tighter mask restrictions in states like Massachusetts and Maine. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have also instituted some similar stay-at-home advisories recently. And then this week, Vermont enacted one of the country's strongest quarantine rules for anyone visiting Vermont from any other state. But here in New Hampshire, the only restrictions that we have seen recently have been to order restaurants to keep better track of their customers in order to help with contact tracing. And last month, Gov. Sununu put a pause on all hockey for two weeks, and that was after a string of cases was connected to hockey rinks. So compared with most of our neighbors, New Hampshire does seem to be taking a bit of a wait and see attitude to the current rise in case numbers.
Rick Ganley: Well, do we know if any additional restrictions are coming to New Hampshire? I know the governor is set to hold a press conference later this afternoon.
Jordyn Haime: Yeah, we could see some chance of that later today. He has been holding those press conferences every Thursday to update this debate on where we are with COVID-19, and sometimes new guidelines are released during that press conference. But during the last few weeks, he said that other than watching the numbers closely, he hasn't really signaled that any new restrictions might be coming. Again though, that could be subject to change at any time. It is worth noting also that this spring, New Hampshire always moved a bit slower than neighboring states when it came to things like closing schools or shutting down non-essential businesses. And New Hampshire is still the only state in the region right now without some sort of statewide mask mandate.
Rick Ganley: This time of year, Jordyn, lots of people are on the move to visit family. College kids, of course, are returning home. What are health officials saying about the upcoming holiday season?
Jordyn Haime: So far, the recommendations from the state are that people should just keep their holiday gatherings small and try to limit their travel. New Hampshire's current travel guideline states that anyone who visits outside of New England should quarantine when they return for 14 days, and the same goes for anybody visiting the state from outside of New England. Schools in particular are watching the holidays very closely. To date, there's actually been a pretty small amount of COVID-19 transmission within K-12 schools. But there is some concern that all the travel around the holidays could increase transmission, and some schools have even suggested that they might go fully remote at some point.