Belknap County’s positive COVID-19 case growth has steadily increased since the tail end of July, along with the rest of New Hampshire. As of this writing, Belknap County has the third highest rate of new cases per 100,000 persons in the state at just over 973 every 14 days, or just around 70 per day. As of Wednesday, COVID-19 had killed 133 people in Belknap County since the start of the pandemic.

“Being high on the list is relative, because all counties are growing and case positivity testing is growing significantly,” said Dr. Matthew Gibb, the chief clinical officer of the Concord Hospital System. “The natural biology of COVID leads to more hospitalizations. We expect that this will continue for a while.”

As the number of new cases increases, so are hospitalizations across the state. Belknap County has been no exception.

“Overall in the state we’re seeing hospital admin climb pretty sharply. We’ve seen case positivity on general testing become three to four times higher than what they’ve been at baseline after the last surge in the winter,” Gibb explained. 

“When you’re closed indoors that’s going to increase the spread as well,” said Tammy Carmichael, the executive director of the Partnership for Public Health. In addition to Laconia transitioning to the indoor winter season, Carmichael cited Laconia’s status as a tourist destination as a possible factor in Belknap County’s higher ranking for case growth, but emphasized that there is no hard data pointing to one single cause.

“(Tourism) has decreased some because the summer is over, but I drive around and still see cars from Massachusetts every weekend,” Carmichael said. “A lot of people from out of state have houses that they come to on the weekend.”  

Regardless of the main cause, as infections continue to rise, so does the strain on local medical resources. Since the pandemic began, hospitals across the U.S. have struggled to provide care during surges, and have had to rapidly adopt new strategies to keep their systems running. One common tactic has been to defer or postpone certain types of care and procedures. Laconia is no exception to this rule. 

“We are deferring some elective care that doesn’t have immediate health risks,” Gibb said, adding, “Most in New Hampshire are doing that.”

Another common trend in surges is overcrowding and crippling of emergency rooms, but according to Gibb, Laconia’s ER is still able to function properly. 

“For urgent care, heart attack, trauma, stroke and other serious illnesses, we are managing to care for the people that come to us with those types of situations,” Gibb said. “Now that we are a system with all three hospitals, we’re managing the ER commonly as a system. We have Concord Hospital providers who now have privileges at Laconia and Franklin. We are still using some outside local resources.” 

During the start of the pandemic, the PPH was one such local resource. “We had our volunteer corps ready,” recalled Carmichael. “We helped to support the hospital with vaccinators and logistical-type volunteers to help bring people from the parking lot to the clinics and be support staff.” 

Currently there isn’t a need from the PPH’s reserves, but that could change if conditions grow worse. 

Despite the help from the new system and extra resources, Gibb acknowledged that emergency rooms are still much busier than usual in both Laconia and Concord.

“I think we have the resources, but it's a day-by-day discussion to do the best we’re able to do it,” Gibb said.

Gibb expressed confidence in the hospital’s current capabilities, and extolled the benefits of being part of the Concord Hospital system. However, both Gibb and Carmichael emphasized the importance of prevention over triage. 

“As we are entering indoor season, we want to advise people to use their best social distance and masking in situations that would be appropriate,” said Gibb. “We do know that vaccinated folks have a lower chance of needing hospital care, and if they do need care they tend to be less sick.” 

According to the PPH, Belknap’s full vaccination status is around 54.5%, on par with the statewide rate. In an effort to increase vaccination rates among children, Carmichael said that the PPH is working with the superintendent’s office to provide after-school vaccine clinics. Such a suggestion has been controversial among some parents with anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiments, but that hasn’t stopped the PPH from continuing to inform the public. 

“People have known cigarettes aren’t healthy for them but people still choose to smoke them, but in our public health field we continue to still educate,” Carmichael said, referring to the lack of masking in common spaces throughout Belknap County. “I think if every citizen in our community took the responsibility to protect themselves and their neighbor and family, we can thwart an increase of COVID in our region. It takes everybody. It takes a village, as they say.”

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