CONCORD — The state is now prioritizing testing for COVID-19 to people who are very sick, hospitalized or work in the public and could broadly spread the virus such as workers in health-care and long-term care facilities, State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan said at a news conference Thursday.
The state is asking that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or who has symptoms but hasn’t been tested, to stay home for at least seven days after symptoms begin until 72 hours after they diminish, Chan said.
Chan said, “There will come a time and even now we need to prioritize testing for those who are more seriously ill, people who are hospitalized or those who are at risk of spreading it further into the community.”
He provided this guidance, some of it new to the public:
“For people who may have symptoms of COVID-19 but not been tested and those with diagnosed COVID-19, we’re asking that they remain home for at least seven days from the time symptoms began and at least 72 hours after symptoms resolved or improved,” Chan said.
Symptoms can start out very mild with feelings of fatigue and aches and include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Chan said: “This a potential change in what we are asking people to do. … It’s important for people to stay home if they are sick.”
Christine Dunphy found this out Thursday when she was denied a test in the parking lot at North Conway's Memorial Hospital. Dunphy said she has several medical conditions and is at high risk of having complications if infected.
Dunphy, 48, of Standish, Maine said she had been feeling ill and called Memorial. She said she was given an appointment for a coronavirus test but after she and her husband made the hour's drive to North Conway, she was told she didn't meet the criteria to be given a test.
She said she waited under the awning and people in full protective gear came out to greet her. Her temperature was taken, and they said it was a little below normal. Dunphy told the Sun she had had a fever of 100.6 when she left the house.
Then, she said, she was asked whether she was a health-care provider or if she lived with one. She answered no to both.
"They said, 'We can't test you,' and I became pretty livid," said Dunphy.
She said they told her to go home and self-isolate. She said she asked: "Why did you tell me to come here and get tested? I drove over an hour. You couldn't have asked me those questions over the phone?"
Told about this encounter, Timothy Kershner, the director of communications and public affairs at Memorial, said: "I cannot speak directly to the patient’s comment because of federal privacy laws. I can emphasize that our screening processes come to us from the Centers for Disease Control and the New Hampshire Department of Health and are being followed. We are reviewing our telephone scripts to make sure we are consistent with callers in explaining the guidelines for the screening and testing process."
After the Chan's news conference on Thursday, state Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye), a gastroenterologist, said: “The message that people need to stay home was not strong enough.”
“The governor said you should stay home if you are sick, and the message from Dr. Chan was even less clear. People must stay home unless they have to go out to shop for food or go on essential errands,” Sherman said.
If people go out, they should wear a mask or, as the CDC says, as a last resort a bandanna, Sherman said.
“They should have no contact with other people closer than 6 feet. Because we have not been able to test adequately, there is no way to know who is carrying the virus,” Sherman said.
On Thursday night, the VTDigger was reporting two deaths from the coronavirus in Vermont.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine announced the two deaths during a press conference Thursday evening.
“One was a male Windsor County resident who had been hospitalized at the VA’s medical center in White River Junction, Levine said. The second was a female resident of the Burlington Health & Rehab elderly care facility,” the nonprofit news outlet reported.
New Hampshire announced five new cases on Thursday bringing the total to 44. There have been no deaths in New Hampshire caused by the virus and officials said most patients here are recovering at home.
Chan said the prioritizing in testing isn’t due to the availability of test kits that proved challenging early on in the outbreak. Rather, New Hampshire is experiencing what is happening nationally in that there is a shortage of the tools and equipment needed in the testing process.
The state has actually ramped up testing in the last week, he said. Chan also took note of the fact that within the last few days, New Hampshire announced several positive tests that were spread through the community, not from travel to areas known to be infected or others who traveled to places like Italy or China.
Chan said he hopes these measures will reduce community transmission and help flatten the curve of spread to avoid overwhelming hospitals and the health-care system.
About 80 percent of people with COVID-19 will experience only mild symptoms but they are still at risk of spreading it, he said.
“It’s our collective responsibility to protect our family, our friends to prevent this virus from spreading further,” he said.
Gov. Chris Sununu made several announcements at the news conference, which was delayed by a phone call governors had with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Sununu encouraged people to be patient with the state website to file for unemployment because of the unprecedented amount of use it’s getting. He encouraged people to call the Department of Employment Security at (603) 271-7700.
He also mentioned the help available for small businesses with a loan fund of $2 million and unveiled a plan to offer $50 million in loans to hospitals.
Sherman said: “We have to get people to understand that for the next two to three weeks, you can’t hang out with friends, you can’t have play dates and you can’t be within 6 feet of another person without the risk of becoming infected.”
Reporter Daymond Steer contributed to this article.