A Hillsborough County man died over the weekend from the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19, State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan announced Monday.

This marks New Hampshire’s first known death in a global pandemic that has already claimed more than 14,600 lives.

Meanwhile, after Vermont reported its first two deaths among COVID-19 patients last Thursday, that toll had hit five by Monday afternoon.

The New Hampshire resident who died was older than 60 and had underlying health conditions, Chan said at a news conference Monday.

“This is the exact group of individuals that is at highest risk for serious COVID-19-related complications, such as hospitalization and even death,” he said.

Other than Manchester and Nashua — the Granite State’s two most populous cities — New Hampshire health officials have not specified where patients who test positive for the contagious respiratory disease live, beyond their counties of residency.

The three newly announced deaths in Vermont all involved residents of Burlington Health & Rehab, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Another resident of that facility — a woman — died last week after contracting COVID-19, as did a Windsor County man who’d been hospitalized at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction. Both patients were older than 80.

The Vermont health department has often included age range and county of residency when reporting COVID-19 cases. But due to the rising numbers, the agency said Monday, it will no longer be able to do so. Officials hope instead to report these details on a periodic basis.

Cases continue to mount

As of a news conference Monday afternoon, Chan said the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire was 101, up 23 from what was announced Sunday. The state has tested more than 2,400 people to date, with an additional 870 testings pending. Chan said 11 people have been hospitalized.

There has been one case each confirmed among residents of Cheshire and Sullivan counties, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

But with the state expected to be able to triple its testing capacity in the coming 24 hours, Gov. Chris Sununu said at Monday’s press briefing, this will mean more positive test results. In addressing this expanded capability later in the briefing, Sununu referenced the fact that Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center can now test for the virus that causes COVID-19 at its lab in Lebanon. (See related story on page A1)

On Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued guidelines on who should be tested for the virus. Medical professionals have been told to prioritize severely ill patients, along with exposed health care providers and first responders, the department said in a news release.

Asked whether this was a recommendation or a mandate, a spokesman for the state’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center said: “The decision whether or not to test a patient lies with the health care provider.”

In addition to ramping up testing, Sununu said the state is working to set up additional medical treatment areas across the state, the first of which will be at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, to accommodate the expected increase of COVID-19 patients who become severely ill and require hospitalization.

Kelly Ricaurte, a spokeswoman for Keene State College, said there is no definitive plan in place, but added that the college has been in talks with the Department of Health and Human Services to see how they might be able to provided extra space for treatment as needed.

“There aren’t specific[s] yet, except that we [are] working with DHHS and state leaders to assist with capacity as needed,” she said in an email Tuesday morning.

Last week, the governor announced a $50 million fund dedicated to assisting health care providers as they struggle to keep up with the growing demand for treatment.

Calls to stay at home

Sununu has already issued a number of orders limiting public activity, such as prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people, closing public schools and mandating that all food service businesses close except for takeout and delivery.

But asked by a reporter why he hasn’t issued a stay-at-home order as the mayors of Manchester and Nashua have called on him to do, Sununu said many of the measures New Hampshire — as part of a regional approach — has already put into effect mirror those of surrounding states.

Two dozen medical professionals, college professors and elected officials are requesting such an order, as is a Change.org petition that had garnered more than 3,500 signatures as of Tuesday morning. 

Sununu noted earlier in Monday’s briefing that many New Hampshire residents have done a good job observing social distancing practices, but this needs to continue. If it doesn’t, he added, “further action may be necessary in order to ensure the health and safety of our neighbors.”

In the meantime, New Hampshire residents are still being urged to stay home, or, if they must go out, to remain at least six feet away from others. Sununu said people can still go outdoors, and Chan mentioned that generally, the spread of a virus becomes a bit less likely in the open air, though it’s still important to keep a healthy distance from other people.

Chan said there appears to be “increasing evidence” that people can transmit the novel coronavirus when they are exhibiting only mild symptoms or none at all, which is potentially a factor in COVID-19’s rapid spread.

The majority of cases in New Hampshire are related to either domestic or international travel, according to Chan, but this isn’t always the case.

“We are seeing a number of individuals in various communities and counties throughout the state who have no clearly identified risk factors of contact with [someone who has tested positive], or travel,” Chan said. “This indicates that there is and continues to be community transmission of COVID-19 in multiple areas of our state.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter

@MiaSummerson