Commentary: It’s time for an honest dialogue about how bad things are with COVID-19

December 14, 2021 5:40 am
An image of the coronavirus

The positivity rate is back where it was in April 2020. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Lab)

We’re now in the biggest surge of cases since the pandemic broke out nearly two years ago. Currently in the state, we’re averaging 80 times more cases per day than where we were this past summer (and around 1.5 times more cases than our prior peak last winter, when vaccines were only just becoming available). The positivity rate – the percentage of COVID tests that return with a positive result – is back where it was in April 2020, and in some areas of the state the rate is as high as 25 percent. The entire state is at “substantial” rates of community transmission. In fact, we’re 10 times higher than the rate that determines “substantial” transmission, and in Sullivan County, that rate is nearly 20 percent higher.

I wish I could say things are getting better, but they’re not. The current modeling suggests that things will get worse over the next couple of weeks.

Our hospitals are under siege: 15 percent of the hospital beds across the state are being taken by COVID-19 patients, including 42 percent of ICU beds, and an overwhelming number of these patients are unvaccinated. At my hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, we are working to expand our capacity to handle the alarming rise in COVID-19 patients, while still maintaining our ability to care for other patients without COVID-19, who come to us from all around northern New England. Our providers are exhausted and frustrated, and many are leaving the profession.

The CDC lists 65 percent of the New Hampshire population as fully vaccinated. Still, the CDC has identified New Hampshire as having the highest daily rate of new per capita COVID-19 cases in the nation. That’s not a distinction that any of us in New Hampshire should be proud about. Public health leaders have said for months that 65 percent is not enough, yet the number of new adults being vaccinated (first doses) began to plateau in June 2021.

So, ask yourself: Are you vaccinated? Are you wearing a mask? Are you thinking about the situations you put yourself and your families into? The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has reported a 68 percent reduction in mask use (based on surveys) and a 72 percent reduction in social distancing (based on cell phone mobility data). During this holiday season, we’re seeing more people out, and fewer people wearing masks.

We must stay vigilant, with the current surge and the unknowns of the omicron variant. If you’ve been vaccinated (and boosted), thank you. If you have not been vaccinated, now is the time. Please be part of the solution.

Our hospital workers are doing all they can in this pandemic. It’s time for everyone else to do all they can, too. Five simple steps: Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. And wash your hands.

This holiday season, that would be a gift that keeps on giving.

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Michael S. Calderwood
Michael S. Calderwood

Dr. Michael S. Calderwood, MD, MPH, is an infectious diseases physician, an epidemiologist, and the chief quality officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.