COVID Testing Nurse Manager Tracy Turcotte, RN, of Stoddard holds the supplies needed to administer a COVID-19 test, at the testing site at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene in September.

For the first time, the proportion of COVID-19 tests coming back positive at Cheshire Medical Center has broken 30 percent, the Keene hospital announced Tuesday.

This marks the fourth week in a row that the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate has reported an increase in this rate.

During the week ending Jan. 20, Cheshire Medical reported a positivity rate of 32.6 percent, compared to 28.2 percent the week before. This is the highest week-to-week jump since early January.

Before the latest surge in COVID-19 cases began right after Thanksgiving, the hospital’s highest test positivity rate had been in September, at 11.3 percent.

Statewide data show a recent decline in cases, with the seven-day average nearly halved between Jan. 17 and 24. This is also happening nationally, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a decline of about 100,000 cases in the seven-day average in that same time frame.

However, it’s “hard to say” when this community will see a decline, according to Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious-disease physician at the Keene hospital.

He explained that the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services’ data could be showing a case drop because of a lag in reporting or be muddled with a rise in at-home COVID-19 testing, which could lead to more false negatives.

Additionally, Khole said the state was “late” to the omicron surge, which is likely driving the community’s numbers.

“We’ve all been watching this sort of closely ... we just have to keep our eyes peeled to see when that [decline] happens here,” he said.

The hospital has seen a slight dip in COVID-19-positive inpatients, though that number is still high.

As of Tuesday morning, there were 18 patients hospitalized with the virus, down from 24 at that time last week, according to President and CEO Dr. Don Caruso. He said a majority of them are unvaccinated, as in previous weeks, but he did not have the percentage.

Five of the COVID-19 inpatients were in the ICU, down two from last week’s total.

Cheshire Medical had an additional nine COVID-19-recovering patients — those who are no longer infectious but still require hospitalization to recover from the virus. This is an increase of three from the week prior but is lower than Jan. 4, when the hospital had 16.

These patients further strain Cheshire Medical’s resources, as hospitals have experienced across the state.

Data as of Tuesday from the N.H. Hospital Association show that in addition to at least 401 infectious COVID-19 patients, Granite State hospitals were treating another 150 patients recovering from the virus.

Caruso added that Cheshire Medical has “an occasional bed available throughout the day,” compared to prior weeks when the hospital was completely full.

This has provided a bit of relief for staff, but Caruso said he doesn’t know if the decline in inpatient numbers is a trend yet.

“We’d love to say it, but I think it’s a little too soon,” he said.

Khole added that the hospital recently saw one of its highest numbers of employees out with COVID-19, with 39 absent last week, which only exacerbates staffing strains. Before the surge, that number would be around 10, he said.

Cheshire Medical continues to urge people to practice COVID-19 safety measures, such as wearing a mask in public, staying home when sick and washing hands frequently, especially as New Hampshire continues to see high case numbers.

Those who haven’t done so are also encouraged to get a COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot, as it’s the best way to protect yourself and others from the viral disease, according to health experts.

To schedule a COVID-19 vaccine or booster appointment, visit vaccines.nh.gov or call 2-1-1.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 603-352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.

Olivia Belanger is the health reporter for The Sentinel, covering issues from the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic to mental health services in the region. A N.H. native, she joined The Sentinel team in August 2019.

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