There's been a steady rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire over the last two weeks, but the number of deaths and hospitalizations due to the virus have remained flat.
How should we make sense of the current coronavirus numbers? NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Dr. Michael Calderwood, an infectious disease expert at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, about what trends we should be paying attention to.
Rick Ganley: Schools, colleges and universities have reopened across the state. Can we attribute the rise in cases to students coming back to the classroom?
Michael Calderwood: So we absolutely have seen an increase, although the numbers are not dramatic. And I would highlight that our numbers for the state actually remain fairly low. So we reached our nadir, our lowest point, over the summer at the end of August. And most recently as of the 15th of September, we had probably doubled the number of new cases per day. We tend to look at seven-day averages, and so our lowest was around 15 new cases per day, averaged over seven days, and we're up around 38.
So it has gone up, but it is, again, not a dramatic rise. If you look at the cases, we currently are monitoring cases across 663 schools. And among all of those schools, there are only 49 active cases. Two thirds of those are from colleges and around 50 percent of them are from [University of New Hampshire]. And [University of New Hampshire] has had two kind of fairly high-profile events, one related to a fraternity and one related to an on campus apartment complex. But overall, actually, the colleges have done really well with opening.
Rick Ganley: Several restaurants around the state have recently closed after some employees have tested positive for COVID-19, with plans to reopen after staff quarantine for two weeks. Do you see these types of closures as part of a new normal?
Michael Calderwood: I do, and I think that this is part of restaurants really realizing their role in the community and taking responsibility to think about how we stop the spread of infections. It's very hard from an economic side probably for these restaurants. But at the same time, if they can nip this in the bud, then they can open safely and break that chain of transmission.
Rick Ganley: The CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, said yesterday that if we could universally wear masks, we could likely bring this virus under control within a matter of weeks. Do you agree with that?
Michael Calderwood: I do agree with that. I think that we have gathered new evidence through the course of the pandemic that masks play an important role in breaking the chains of transmission. When you're wearing the mask, you have to wear the mask correctly and not all masks are created equal. But if we are covering our nose and our mouth with masks that have a proper number of layers, then yes, that is something that could really halt the ongoing spread.
Rick Ganley: A lot of us obviously looking for signs of a second surge. What trends should we be looking for? What would be the signs that we're heading, you know, in that direction?
Michael Calderwood: We're really looking at three things across the state to think about when we move from our current state, which is minimal transmission overall for the state, although there are a couple areas, Manchester and Strafford County, that are a touch higher at this moment. But in general, we're looking for new infections over a 14-day period that increase above 50 or more per 100,000 in the population. We're looking at testing. And so if we're doing sufficient testing, we should have very low rates of positivity. But if we're finding that 5 percent or more of our tests are turning positive, again in that 14-day period, that would raise concern. And then we're looking at new hospitalizations. And so we're looking at that count is 10 or more per 100,000 in that 14-day period. And we're really doing well. We're down to eight people total that are hospitalized in the state. And it's about one admission every other day if you look at our seven day average. And in terms of deaths, while any death is significant, our seven day average works out to about one death every 10 days.
Rick Ganley: As an infectious disease expert, what is your biggest concern about what's going on and what we're seeing now?
Michael Calderwood: You know, I think my my biggest concerns right now are complacency and feeling like it's time to move on to the next thing. It's very hard to continue the same level of vigilance. We've talked about the masks and the distancing. Another is hand washing. You know, we're going on months of this. We're beginning to see the strain on folks, and so I think we need to continue to work together as a community, realize that we are addressing this not as individuals, but as a group.
Rick Ganley: What's your response to people who say that with these low numbers that we should be opening up more and maybe that this is being overplayed?
Michael Calderwood: Well, I think that it's not a light switch. It's not an all or none. And I think that there was a lot of concern about what would happen as we began to open schools, as we began to open colleges. We brought people back from other areas of the country where the numbers are not as low as they are here. As we go through the fall months, and we understand the impacts of some of these fluctuations in populations as we bring more students back, as we open the schools, and so the social distancing that we have been working with over the summer is broken down to a degree, because we're now congregating in buildings and classrooms. We'll have to see. But I think that we would recommend going in a stepwise fashion, such that we can begin to relax if we see the numbers continue to be low. But what we don't want to do is relax everything at once and make the mistakes that have clearly been made in other states.
Rick Ganley: Sounds like your message, though, from New Hampshire is cautious optimism.
Michael Calderwood: Cautious optimism, I think is exactly the message.