COVID tracking: All our goals have been met, but we can’t let our guard down

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Published: 6/28/2020 5:11:23 PM

The Concord Monitor is keeping track of four measurements as indicators of how the COVID-19 pandemic is progressing. This is our fourth weekly update and the news is very good: All four have now been met, although one of them is a bit iffy.

Before we get to details, what does this success mean? Not what we’d like it to mean, unfortunately.

It does not mean that the coronavirus has disappeared or mutated into something harmless.

Nor does it mean we’ve achieved some version of herd immunity. As Health and Human Service Commissioner Lori Shibinette noted last week, in New Hampshire antibody tests, which can detect whether you have had COVID-19 in the past and have some immunity, are finding positive results only in 2% to 3% of people.

“That’s not approaching anything even close to herd community,” she said. “If we get a second wave (of infections) it will be as severe, if not more severe. … Don’t let your guard down; we are doing a great job.”

And that, alas, is the lesson of our success. Wearing masks in public and not getting close to people and washing our hands and avoiding crowds – all of which I hate as much as you do – have contained the spread of the virus in our state and limited the number of people who have to be hospitalized or worse. Except for the tragedy of many long-term care facilities, which have struggled with the devastating effects of this virus all over the country, the medical impact of COVID-19 has been fairly well contained in the state.

But we can’t stop these annoying practices now any more than you can shed all your winter clothes when walking through the snow because they’ve kept you warm so far.

We have to maintain these habits until a vaccine is widely available, which may not happen for another year.

Yes, that’s depressing and even alarming from an economic standpoint. But it’s reality and you can’t dodge reality.  At least New Hampshire, unlike other parts of the country, knows how to control the virus.

And now, here is my weekly update on how we’re doing on four goals, looking at data collected in New Hampshire by the state as of Friday, June 26.

Goal 1

A two-week drop in cases as measured by the 14-day running average, which would indicate the virus is abating.

 Have we met this goal? Yes!

As of Friday, the average number of new cases over the previous two weeks had fallen consistently since June 4.

Goal 2

Fewer than four new cases per 100,000 people each day, which would show that the disease is below dangerous levels.

Have we met this goal? Yes!

New Hampshire has 1.36 million people, so four new cases per 100,000 people is a ceiling of 54 new cases a day. As of Friday, the two-week average is much lower than that: just 32 cases per day.

Goal 3

At least 150 PCR tests performed per 100,000 people per day, which spot current COVID-19 cases. This figure indicates that we’re doing enough testing to be confident in conclusions.

Have we met this goal? Yes, but with a caveat.

Performing 150 PCR tests per 100,000 people means 2,000 tests a day. The daily average as of the end of last week was 2,126. That number has risen considerably because the state has rolled out its sustainable testing program in nursing homes and other care facilities, doing widespread testing of randomly chosen facilities to spot cases early in places with many people over the age of 70, who are very vulnerable.

However, there is a hitch: Testing protocols in long-term care facilities often include testing the same person more than once. As a result, the number of people being tested is much lower. Just 1,330 people were tested daily on average over the past week.

If our goal is to have least 150 people per 100,000 being tested daily, rather than 150 tests per 100,000 being run, we’re still well short. That’s why I say this one is iffy.

The goal is perhaps the most important because all the others depend on it. If you’re not testing enough then the rest of your data is, at best, suspect.

Commissioner Shibinette said last week the state is looking at how to expand testing in coming months, shifting it away from stand-alone sites run by the National Guard and into hospitals and doctor’s offices. To an extent, she said, the limit right now is how many people want to be tested: “Our supply equals demand.”

“I don’t think we can really be definite about how much of our population is exposed unless testing increases exponentially. I don’t know that it’s going to,” she said.

Goal 4

A positive rate of PCR tests below 5%, indicating that the virus is not spreading rapidly in the general population.

Have we met this goal? Yes.

The positive rate has been below 5% as measured on three-day averages for all but a few days in the past six weeks.

Two other positive points: Our death rate is slowing and the hospitalization rate is also declining; last week saw two days in a row with no new hospitalizations, the first time that has happened since the pandemic began.

To see a discussion of how I decided on these four measurements, check this earlier column.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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