COVID tracker: The bad news keeps getting worse but vaccines hold out hope

  • NH DHHS—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 11/29/2020 8:37:03 AM

The news that vaccines appear to be on their way is adding a note of hope to our dismal COVID-19 numbers.

You probably know the dismal part already.

The average number of new cases each day in New Hampshire has tripled this month, from 133 on Nov. 1 to 416 on Sunday.  The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 has more than tripled, from 41 to 146, worse than the peak back in May. The positive rate of PCR tests has risen steadily and has edge above the 5% mark that often is used as a warning sign that community spread is getting out of control.

None of these show signs of slowing.

Deaths are increasing but not too quickly, with about three people succumbing to COVID-19 every two days, almost always people over the age of 60. However, it’s common for increased hospitalizations to lead to increased deaths a few weeks down the road.

And even if deaths don’t rise sharply, COVID-19 has already contributed to 17 times as many deaths as last year’s influenza season.

By the way, the weekend’s eye-popping numbers, including 702 new cases on Saturday, were due to delayed reporting because of Thanksgiving. Numbers were underreported Thursday and Friday.

So even though Northern New England remains in much better shape than most other places in the United States, there’s no sign of this pattern leveling off or decreasing either here or in neighboring states. We need to keep being vigilant even as it ruins the holidays.

The biggest reason to be vigilant? All that news about vaccines.

People who argue that we should just let the disease run its course made a sort of sick, twisted sense if there was no hope of ever vanquishing COVID-19. That was, after all, how civilization dealt with plagues for 5,000 years until 1801, when Edward Jenner published his experiments showing that infecting people with the mild disease known as cowpox protected them from the deadly smallpox.

Now we live in a land where plagues are a rarity and we fuss if a vaccine is only 70% effective instead of 90%. It’s a delight that none of us would want to give up but the resulting loss of institutional memory about contagion is part of the reason we’re being so inept at coping with COVID-19.

But it looks like good vaccines will be coming sooner than I had hoped, with two messenger RNA vaccines doing well in Phase 3 trials and several more traditional vaccines, made with killed or disabled viruses of similar diseases, moving quickly through the pipeline. Manufacturing and distribution is going to be a real headache but there’s a good chance that by next Thanksgiving life will be at least three-quarters back to what it used to be, although with less commuting, fortunately, and fewer bars and restaurants, unfortunately.

For me, this is reason to double down on those annoying disease-avoiding habits like masks and social distancing and not going into crowded places. I sure as heck don’t want to succumb to COVID-19 right before modern medicine rides to the rescue.

Yes, I’m going a little stir-crazy being stuck at home but it will be worth it when they stab me in the arm with that vaccine!

As for COVID-19 numbers, I update three charts on weekdays and some weekends. You can see them online here: Daily new caseshospitalizationsdeaths.

Here’s how we’re doing on the weekly metrics that the Monitor has been tracking since the start of summer.

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

The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19, which was very low as late as September, hit 131 on Friday, higher than the peak of 126 back in May.

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

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.

As I noted above, new cases have been rising sharply all month and we haven’t been below an average of 54 new cases a day since the first week of October.

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.

New Hampshire is reporting an average of more than 9,000 PCR tests a day, and while that’s well over our guideline, we could use more. Reports of long waits at some testing stations shows that we’re not prepared to deal with any increase in need, such as people who want to travel for Thanksgiving.

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? Barely.

In one of the most worrisome signs, the positive rate in PCR tests (those are the accurate ones that take a couple days to get results, from a lab) have been edging higher and higher. It is very close to breaking the 5% mark.

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

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