ANDROSCOGGIN VALLEY — A “recent and rapid increase in the rate of COVID infections in the community” has led Berlin and Gorham to issue Code Red warnings asking residents to get vaccinated, wear masks and stay home as much as possible.

“We’re in the worst of the last 20 months of this pandemic, and we need everyone to help us through,” said Ken Gordon, CEO of Coos County Family Health Services.

The state reported more than 130 positive COVID-19 cases in the Berlin-Gorham area Friday, by far the highest numbers seen since the pandemic began and taxing local health facilities and workers. Public schools are at red, requiring masks indoors, and White Mountain Community College has upgraded its status to require students to be masked at all times when in the building.

State figures show Coos County currently has the highest rate of active cases per 100,000 of the state’s 10 counties.

There were three positive COVID-19 patients in Androscoggin Valley Hospital’s ICU unit and another five COVID patients on the floor last Thursday reported Brian O’Hearn, AVH’s vice president of patient care. O’Hearn said the hospital had its first patient die of COVID-related illness the previous night.

Not only is the number of affected people high but Androscoggin Valley Hospital is seeing sicker patients with long recovery periods. At the COVID-19 community working Zoom meeting Thursday, O’Hearn said the people who are admitted to the hospital, especially those in the ICU, are slow in recovering.

“So, they’re stable, but they’re just not getting better,” he reported.

The increase in positive cases is not limited to the Androscoggin Valley. There were 240 positive cases in Coos County as a whole on Friday and O’Hearn said both Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital in Colebrook and Weeks Medical Center in Lancaster are struggling with increased numbers of positive COVID-19 patients. With hospitals throughout the state spread thin by the pandemic, O’Hearn said they are unable to arrange transfers. He said the hospital had two COVID patients that needed a higher level of care than the hospital could provide and it was very difficult to transfer them.

“There’s staffing challenges throughout the state as well,” O’Hearn noted.

Anticipating that the current surge will last three or four more weeks, he said AVH is looking at delaying some elective surgeries for a few weeks. O’Hearn said there is no way to control the number of COVID patients that come in so the hospital is forced to look at elective surgeries. But he stressed it is a balancing act and the hospital does not want to shut down all elective surgeries or do anything that causes illness down the road.

O’Hearn said the hospital is also getting overwhelmed with the huge demand for testing and said there are now delays in getting test results.

“The sheer demand based on illness in our community right now is absolutely exceeding our capacity,” he said, noting both resources to do the testing and supplies are being taxed.

O’Hearn said one idea being studied is for the various health organizations to open up a joint COVID-19 center and move everything there on a temporary basis except for acute or primary care. It would serve as a temporary one-stop shop for COVID-19 testing and could even do monoclonal antibody infusions to high-risk positive cases there. One possible location is the former Brown School which earlier served as a vaccination center.

Tri-County Community Action Program reported several staff and employees tested positive, forcing them to close their offices to the general public. Its transit program, however, is continuing to run with special precautions in place.

Starting this week, staff meetings will be virtual while clinic visits will take place outside or by telehealth.

Berlin School Superintendent Julie King said about 14 students at the two schools had tested positive and many more were out with symptoms and quarantined waiting for test results. There are six staff members at the elementary school that tested positive. She said the numbers were down slightly from the previous week.

SAU 20 Superintendent of Schools David Backler said six students and three staff in the Gorham school system were positive. He said the numbers there are also down slightly but not significantly.

White Mountain Community College President Chuck Lloyd said the college has returned to the measures taken last year before there was a vaccine. Masks are now fully required indoors, and they are canceling or limiting many of their events.

“We’d hoped to be in a different place — I think I can say that for everybody,” Lloyd said.

Local health officials report a majority of the positive cases are people who are not vaccinated although there are positive cases of people who have been vaccinated. O’Hearn said the difference is unvaccinated people who get COVID-19 are a lot sicker.

“They’re in our ICU, and they’re having a very difficult time respiratory-wise. We’re not seeing people actually get better, which is frightening,” he said.

Vaccines are readily available in the valley including third doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Coos County Family Health Services, Walgreens and Walmart are all providing vaccines. People can sign up at vaccines.gov. The federal Centers for Disease Control shows 56 percent of Coos County’s population is fully vaccinated and 64 percent has had at least one shot.

O’Hearn said Coos County appears to be following the trend that hit Kentucky earlier this fall when that state led the country in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

He said Coos is about a month behind Kentucky but experienced the same rapid ascent. What worries O’Hearn is the numbers in Kentucky dropped and then spiked again, leading him to fear the numbers have not yet peaked in Coos County.

This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.