State and local officials suspect Rockingham County’s proximity to some of the hardest hit counties in Massachusetts is a major contributing factor to Rockingham’s high number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19.
Rockingham, which has significantly more cases than any other county in the state, has become New Hampshire’s hotspot. Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state’s epidemiologist, said the increased incidence of COVID-19 in Rockingham County is likely because it borders Massachusetts and many of the state’s residents work or do business south of the border.
“I think part of what you’re seeing in Rockingham followed by Hillsborough County is those are areas of the state with the highest population density,” Chan said. “They are closer to thoroughfares for people coming up from Massachusetts.”
Chan said the travel habits of residents along both borders raise the risk factor.
“We have seen instances of cross border transmission from people that live in this part of the state,” Chan said. “That is certainly a risk factor and likely reflects the number of people in cases we are seeing as well.”
Rye Police Chief Kevin Walsh has expressed concerns about the number of people traveling from Massachusetts and other areas to the Seacoast and its beaches despite orders to stay home during the crisis.
On Monday, Massachusetts reported 5,752 positive cases, with many located in Essex and Middlesex counties, which border Rockingham and Hillsborough.
New Hampshire has 314 cases — 100 in Rockingham County. Of the 45 patients hospitalized so far in New Hampshire, 18 have been treated at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.
“That number changes drastically as new test results are provided, patients admitted, and patients discharged,” hospital spokeswoman Lynn Robbins said.
Portsmouth Fire Chief Todd Germain said the fire department is handling an average of two to four calls a day concerning patients who have either tested positive for the virus or are displaying symptoms.
“At this point in the game we’re treating everybody as if they’re positive,” he said.
Derry Town Administrator Dave Caron said, “The relatively higher density in the southern tier; our proximity to Massachusetts where the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is high; and the large number of residents who work in Massachusetts and/or travel as part of their employment have all contributed to the number of cases we now see in Rockingham County,” Caron said.
Mapping the cases
On Monday, the state Division of Public Health issued for the first time a map showing the approximate number of cases for each town. Throughout the pandemic, state officials had only been releasing cases by county out of concern that listing towns would make it easier for the public to identify these individuals.
“This is something we’ve had a lot of requests about in the past,” Chan said.
Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith said there was an effort by communities individually asking the state for the town-by-town numbers of cases, so their public safety departments could be better informed about the risks and take the necessary precautions.
Smith said communities have been asking for this information since last week. Originally, they were told by state officials that breaking up the case numbers by town would violate HIPAA privacy rules. But out of concern for first responders, they told Smith they are now willing to share it with them.
“When they started giving out the counts for Manchester and Nashua a week ago, that’s when the rest of us were like, ‘Why can’t we find out, as individual communities, especially those of us who are bordering towns?’” Smith said. “I think it got to a critical mass of individual communities reaching out.”
Salem Health Officer Brian Lockard said they also don’t have a clear idea how many patients with COVID-19 are living in Salem presently.
Exeter Health Officer James Murrary said it would be helpful if the state identified the communities that are seeing the most positive cases.
“This might give us a better idea as to where the community spread is and might help us to isolate areas where outbreaks are occurring. This data would not affect our response to assist our neighboring communities, but anything that can show if our approach is working or not would be useful,” he said.
Monday’s town-by-town map shows most towns in Rockingham County with between one and four cases. Of the remainder:
10 to 19 cases: Derry, Windham, Salem and Portsmouth.
Five to 9 cases: Auburn, Danville, Hampton and Stratham.
No cases: Northwood, Newington, Fremont, Sandown, East Kingston, Kensington and South Hampton.
Preparing for a surge
While the increasing number of cases in Rockingham County worries local officials, they said they’ve been expecting the numbers to rise and are doing their best to prepare. Steps have been taken to protect residents and staff at the Rockingham County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center and inmates at the county jail in Brentwood.
Rockingham County Commissioner Kevin St. James said one benefit resulting from a recent modeling project at the nursing home is that on three of the floors the rooms now “self-ventilate” and do not have a mixed air system.
“If something happens we’re prepared to isolate people in those rooms where it won’t contaminate the whole facility,” he said.
At the jail, new inmates undergo temperature checks and are quarantined in one of two empty blocks for about four days when they arrive to make sure they don’t have symptoms.
“If COVID-19 ran through the jail it would be a nightmare,” St. James said.
Exeter Hospital spokeswoman Debra Vasapolli said the hospital is preparing for the anticipated surge in demand, which includes securing additional personal protective equipment, expanding the hospital’s physical capacity to take patients, and working with the state and New Hampshire National Guard on a surge facility set up at the University of New Hampshire to handle overflow from Seacoast area hospitals.
“With the growing evidence of expanding community transmission, especially in Rockingham County, it is extremely important for everyone to limit their physical face to face interactions as much as possible. We also encourage the state to significantly expand its testing guidelines as more and more testing capability comes online. The faster we can identify early cases, investigate them and limit their spread on a case by case basis the more effective we as a community will be at slowing the spread of the virus,” she said.