CONCORD — The low incidence of COVID-19 over the past two months has ended with an uptick in positive cases in New Hampshire, likely linked to activity on college campuses and some large gatherings, according to state officials.
But Gov. Chris Sununu said this latest bump is driven more by increased testing for the novel coronavirus, rather than an alarming spread of the virus as administrators at colleges and public schools are regularly testing students and staff.
“A month ago we were averaging about 2,200 tests a day and now we are doing 4,000 and 5,000 a day right now. With an expanded testing capacity, we are going to see an increase in cases,” Sununu said Thursday.
Over the past week, the state’s daily average for positive cases has gone from 20 to 30 and there have been some daily highs above those amounts: 56 new cases were announced Thursday.
Sununu said a key metric is the rate of positive tests statewide and that remains right around 1 percent.
“If that were to get up to 4, 5, 6 percent positivity then it would really be more of a cause for concern,” Sununu said when asked what metric he would use for deciding whether to impose further restrictions.
According to the state’s dashboard, the rate of testing positive in Manchester over the past week was 3.2 percent.
It’s the only community in the entire state described as “moderate” for community transmission; the rest of the state is graded as “minimal.”
Public Health Deputy Director Patricia Tilley told the Economic Reopening Task Force Thursday that state health officials are watching another metric known as the “effective reproductive number.”
This measures how many secondary infections occur from each person that comes down with the virus.
Any state with a rate under 1.0 is considered to have the virus under control; those with a number over 1.0 are a cause for concern.
As of Thursday, New Hampshire’s number was 1.09, the highest in New England. Only eight states in the country have a higher value.
Tilley stressed each state’s metric shifts day to day and you need to track it for a week or more to know whether it reveals a new trend.
“We need to keep checking back on this data to see if we are going in right direction,” she said.
Sununu said many of those testing positive at UNH either were commuting from home to Durham or taking all of their classes remotely from their dorm room when they came down with the virus.
College administrators are “managing to their plans” said Sununu who said he frequently speaks with college administrators.
Each school is different and will call for a unique approach given the level of on-campus student living, access to health care services and the severity of any symptoms, Sununu said.
“We have the ability to make that guidance on a one-on-one basis to help them make the best decisions,” Sununu said.
That said, Sununu said continued vigilance is needed to prevent the spread of the virus on campuses, noting in other states a “small dorm or frat party” has forced some colleges to lock down.
“It’s definitely an area of concern. I’ve got to be honest, there are not a lot of areas where I don’t have any concern,” Sununu said.
Nursing home numbers
The increased cases also affected the state’s nursing homes, according to Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette.
Last month, the state announced it was relaxing restrictions for visitation and patient travel for nursing homes in counties that have fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people.
Grafton County nursing homes had been at phase three, which allowed for full communal dining and recreation activities.
But in the past two weeks, the positive test count went up to 11 per 100,000 in Grafton County and that has moved these homes move back to phase two with more restrictions, Shibinette said.
On the other hand, the case count in Sullivan County has dropped to 7 per 100,000, which allows its homes to move into phase 3 along with nursing homes in Coos and Belknap counties.