COVID tracker: Sharp rise in cases is alarmingly similar to the Spanish Flu epidemic

  • NH DHHS—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/16/2020 11:28:34 AM

Everybody expected a resurgence of COVID-19 when autumn arrived but that doesn’t make it any less alarming that New Hampshire, like much of the Northern Hemisphere, is seeing a rise in cases and deaths.

The numbers are stark: As of Saturday our average number of new cases daily is the highest we’ve seen since June 4. It has increased by about 40% in just one week, a rate we last saw in late April, when the state was scrambling to set up emergency hospitals out of fear of being overwhelmed. Community spread of the virus – which means the increase isn’t caused by a single “super-spreader” event such as a party – is being reported in several parts of the state.

Perhaps worse, for the first time since early May the number of COVID-related deaths is increasing: Twenty-three people have died in the past two weeks. That reflects renewed outbreaks in long-term health care facilities, a problem that New Hampshire seemed to have solved just a few weeks ago. This shows how difficult it can be to keep safe areas safe.

The only bright spot is slightly puzzling: The number of COVID-related hospitalizations, which usually rises before the number of deaths start to rise, is not increasing. One possibility is that the new  cases we’re seeing are mostly among younger people who don’t get very sick while deaths at nursing homes happen so quickly they don’t go to the hospital, but that’s just speculation.

Hanging over this picture are memories of the Spanish Influenza epidemic of a century ago. The U.S. went through an initial bout of cases and deaths in spring of 1918 and then the largely faded, only to come raging back in September of that year, killing far more people than the initial bout. By the time the flu faded in 1920 it had killed at least 600,000 Americans – the exact number is unknown – at a time when the nation’s population was only one-third what it is today.

Let’s hope we’re not about to repeat that pattern. Our one hope is that they didn’t have vaccines in 1920.

The best way to limit the damage until widespread vaccines become available is, of course, to wear masks in public and keep separated and isolated as much as possible.

And one more thing: Get your flu vaccine. It won’t protect you against COVID-19 but it will make it less likely that you’ll get sick with COVID-like symptoms at a time when we don’t need that complication. The flu vaccine is imperfect but get it anyway. I have.

Here’s how we’re doing on the weekly metrics that the Monitor has been tracking all summer. As always, you can check three charts about the virus in New Hampshire that I update each weekday, via these links: New cases, new hospitalizations, and total deaths.

Goal 1: No sustained increase in number of new hospitalizations related to COVID-19. Have we met this goal? Yes.

The two-week average of new hospitalizations has hovered between one-half and one per day all summer. It isn’t going down but it doesn’t seem to be rising, either.

Goal 2: A two-week drop in new cases. Have we met this goal? No.

As mentioned above, the two-week average in daily new cases is rising at a rate not seen since the start of the pandemic, having doubled in less than a month. The average was 35 on Sept. 25 and had risen to 76 by Saturday.

Goal 3: Fewer than four new cases per 100,000 people each day, or 54 new cases a day. Have we met this goal? No.

The average number of new cases was below the per-capita level commonly used as a sign of widespread infection for four months, from mid-June to early October, but is much higher now.

Goal 4: Conducting at least 150 PCR tests per 100,000 people each day, or 2,000 tests per day. Have we met this goal? Yes, easily.

The addition of rapid antigen tests brought the average number of tests over 6,000 for the week.

Goal 5: A positive rate of PCR tests below 5%, indicating that we’re doing enough testing to get a good handle on how widespread the virus is. Have we met this goal? Yes, easily.

As measured by the Department of Health and Human Services, the positive rate for PCR tests has been about 1% recently. Antigen tests have a higher positive rate, sometimes rising above 5%, but fewer exist so the rate fluctuates greatly.

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

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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