Though area hospitals have recently started easing back into normal practices and procedures, officials say they are prepared for a second wave of the coronavirus, if and when it comes.
When epidemiologists talk of a second wave, they are referring to a re-emergence of the virus after a quieter period of minimal transmission.
But thoughts on when this would occur differ among scientists and public officials nationwide. Some — including N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu — say it could arrive as soon as the fall. Others argue the first surge is still alive and well, and a second wave will take more time to surface.
“I think September, October, we need to kind of build it into our DNA that we have to be prepared for the fact that numbers could spike,” Sununu said during a June 11 news conference. “And we’re going to be right on top of it. We got to be right on top of testing capability, PPE, all those things on the back end.”
Regardless of the timeline, local hospitals, as well as the state, say they will be able to handle another wave of COVID-19.
As of Sunday, a total of 5,544 New Hampshire residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, when tracking began, and 553 have been hospitalized for it, according to statistics from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. About 6 percent of those diagnosed with the disease, or 339, have died.
Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious-disease physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, said the hospital has continued to be sparing in its use of personal protective equipment (PPE). The hospital is also still receiving regular shipments of PPE, he noted, in preparation for a second surge.
And even with more patients arriving for in-person visits now, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate will continue to use new protocols established during the pandemic, Khole said. These include a strict visitation policy and encouraging telehealth visits — rather than in-person — whenever possible.
Additionally, the hospital staff and patients continue to abide by COVID-19 safety protocols, he said.
“What we have definitely learned is, in order to keep staff and patients safe, it is extremely essential to comply with conservative measures,” Khole said in an email, “including universal use of face masks, hand hygiene, social distancing and avoiding interactions if sick.”
At Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough, similar practices are in place to prepare for a possible second wave, with levels of PPE and case numbers statewide being closely monitored.
Spokeswoman Laura Gingras added in an email that the hospital has “maintained readiness,” with systems in place to segregate COVID-19 patients from other patients if needed.
Like Cheshire Medical, Gingras said, Monadnock Community Hospital’s visitor policy continues to allow only one healthy visitor to accompany inpatients and labor-and-delivery patients.
For children receiving outpatient care, or those who need assistance, one visitor is also allowed.
Cyndee McGuire, president and CEO of the Peterborough hospital, added the hospital’s preparation for another COVID-19 wave has been made possible by the staff’s hard work thus far.
“The past 4 months have been some of the most challenging in our 100-year history,” she said in an email. “Our medical team and staff have shown us how creative they can be in changing processes and preparing our hospital to care for our community during this pandemic.”
Khole said, in addition to what Cheshire Medical has learned from months of limited procedures and heftier safety protocols, the key to tackling another wave is to continue with conservative measures.
“We knew all this works from past experience, and it only became clearer as we have walked through this pandemic,” he said. “Now is the time to reinforce this behavior rather than becoming lax — both within the hospital and in the community at large.”