LACONIA — Belknap County has had relatively low incidence of COVID-19 but now has its highest number of active cases — 25 — since record keeping began in March, according to the state Health and Human Services Department.
Between October 1 and Thursday the department reported a total of 49 positive test results in the county, or about one-quarter of the 202 cases reported in the county since the virus began.
Belknap County has had a total of 14 hospitalizations and five deaths to date. Statewide, there are 832 active cases.
Overall, the pandemic has included 10,000 cases in New Hampshire, 765 hospitalizations and 470 deaths. Most of the infections have been in southern New Hampshire and most of the serious cases have involved elderly residents living in long-term care settings.
The uptick in Belknap County began about the same time as the New England Wolves junior hockey team began testing positive for the disease following an Oct. 3 game at Merrill Fay Arena that was officiated by a referee who later was diagnosed with the disease. This was one of eight games he worked in New Hampshire and Maine over a two-day period.
It’s not clear whether the referee was responsible for the infections among the team, or how many of the present active cases are related to hockey.
Team General Manager Andrew Trimble said last week that he knew of about 10 people associated with the team who tested positive. Affected players were isolated if they tested positive or quarantined if they didn’t.
This and seven other outbreaks involving hockey teams led Gov. Chris Sununu to declare a two-week moratorium on indoor ice rink activities — a pause that is now half over. He is reviewing recommendations to require COVID-19 tests and more use of face masks for people on and around the ice.
Jake Leon, a spokesman for Health and Human Services, said that over the last two months there have been 184 hockey-related cases of COVID-19, including 31 people who were close contacts of those originally infected.
“Due to privacy and confidentiality requirements in HIPAA, we cannot share additional personal information in order to prevent constructive identification of the people involved,” he said.
“We are currently developing county level data that will provide more insight into the impact of hockey on the pandemic.”
Leon said the number of cases and outbreaks associated with hockey have been unexpected.
“The issue extends beyond New Hampshire as other New England states are seeing similar outcomes related to hockey,” he said.
“The science around the coronavirus continues to evolve, but this was not something that could have been anticipated. We continuously monitor the science and the impact of coronavirus on hockey as well as other sports in order to ensure a safe environment for sports activities.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said ice hockey can lead to risks for disease transmission. A total of 13 people tested positive for the disease after a June 16 recreational hockey game in Tampa Bay, Florida.
“Ice hockey involves vigorous physical exertion accompanied by deep, heavy respiration, and during the game, players frequently move from the ice surface to the bench while still breathing heavily,” the CDC report said.
Eight months into the pandemic, some people are getting weary of taking precautions like social distancing and wearing a mask, but health officials say these practices are just as important now as they were earlier in the pandemic. Residents are also being encouraged to get a flu shot.
As the weather gets colder and more people are congregating indoors, COVID-19 case numbers are going up more rapidly in many areas of the country.
Sununu acknowledged in a news conference Thursday that there is pushback in some quarters to the face mask advice.
“There is a small contingency of individuals in the state that are just being very defiant about wearing a mask and taking some of the precautions,” he said. “My message to those individuals would be, first and foremost, obviously, they're wrong.
“COVID is very real. If you're not worried about it for yourself, I suppose that is your right to do so. But be worried about it for those you may transmit it to, loved ones, the elderly, whatever it might be.
“There are case after case after case across this country and across New England where folks thought it wasn't a big deal. You had well over 100 people being infected seven hours north of here up in Millinocket at a wedding. And that has resulted in real fatalities. They didn't think it was a big deal, either.”
He said that those who don’t want to listen to health experts, should look at examples of people who didn’t take the virus seriously, didn’t take precautions, and ended up sick or dead.
Sununu said he takes precautions himself. For example, President Donald Trump is to hold a rally in New Hampshire on Sunday. The governor said he will likely greet him at the airport but won’t campaign with him.
“I don’t go to the rallies,” he said.
On the Web:
Getting a COVID-19 test: — https://tinyurl.com/y5bnur3d
Interactive COVID-19 dashboard — https://tinyurl.com/yyweoe7c