There was big coronavirus news for New Hampshire this week, and most of the media missed it.
At his Thursday press conference, Gov. Chris Sununu displayed a graphic (pictured below) showing that the average number of coronavirus tests per day has more than doubled since mid-August.
Fewer than 3,000 people per day, on average, were being tested in the middle of last month. This month the daily average has hovered around 7,000, peaking at nearly 8,000 last week before falling this week.
What some last week portrayed as a worrisome increase in infections is largely explained by expanded testing, mostly at colleges.
The University of New Hampshire has been testing students twice a week since the start of school in late August, but only the positive test results had been reported in the state’s official numbers.
Without those thousand of negative test results, the state’s reported numbers appeared to show an increase in the positive test rate.
In fact, the positive rate has been falling. Instead of ticking up to around 1.5%, it has dropped to around 0.5%.
State epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan said Thursday that the increase in positive tests does not represent a surge or an acceleration in the infection rate.
“We believe some of the increases we are seeing to a large part is because of the increased testing we are seeing,” Chan said. “We are seeing the numbers of people with COVID-19 go up in the younger age groups, and that is directly attributable to the testing strategies that are out there at colleges and universities.”
There have been a few small clusters, two at UNH, but they’ve been isolated. Some infections might not have happened without colleges reopening, but the reopenings have not caused a case surge.
As of mid-September, the reopening of businesses and schools has not caused worrisome levels of community transmission or triggered any indicator that would lead to a reversal of the state’s reopening plans.
Media coverage of the state coronavirus briefings continues to focus on daily and total numbers, often missing the larger context. The best news coverage of Thursday’s news came from Patch’s Tony Schinella, who understood the story.
We would also point out that on Tuesday the Josiah Bartlett Center was the first to note the signfiicant increase in testing in September. We pointed out that some of the rise in infections could be attributed to the additional testing. The state would not include UNH numbers for two more days, so we caught only the uptick in the state’s reported numbers.
UNH has conducted more than 86,000 tests, Dr. Chan said on Thursday. Its daily average from Sept. 2-Sept. 8 was 3,300. (UNH keeps its own COVID dashboard.) In September, the state has averaged 3,575 tests per day, excluding the UNH tests.
As these tests have uncovered new infections, the state’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate has fallen from 10% at the end of August to 9% just over two weeks later. As of Thursday, the state has recorded only six COVID-19 deaths this month. It recorded 17 in August, down from 44 in July.
As of September 17, there are only eight current hospitalizations for COVID-19 in New Hampshire. No county has even 90 known active cases, and four counties (Cheshire, Coos, Grafton and Sullivan) have fewer than 10. Only three municipalities have more than 20 known active cases: Durham (23), Nashua (23) and Manchester (32).
So halfway into September, the news continues to be positive. Increased testing has uncovered some new infections, including several small clusters, but there is no surge. Hospitalizations and deaths continue to trend downward.