Ken Wells' Report from Concord
written May 15, 2020
published in the June issue of the Andover Beacon
As of June 10, the NH Legislature is back in session again, finally. Since the House of Representatives’ 19-hour marathon session back on March 12, the House has been unable to meet. The Governor declared a COVID-19 state of emergency on March 17, locking the State House and the Legislative Office Building. On March 25, the Democratic caucus of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the Governor, imploring him to issue a stay-at-home order to protect the people of NH and slow the exponential spread of the disease.
Shortly thereafter, the Governor issued stay-at-home orders, followed by many other extraordinary emergency measures designed to prevent widespread loss of life, to prevent overwhelming our hospitals, and to direct federal relief funds to keep our state, our businesses and our families from experiencing catastrophic failure, in the short term.
But unfortunately, this coronavirus is not programmed to be a short term phenomenon. We are exposed to all kinds of viruses daily, and fortunately the human body’s natural defenses are almost impenetrable. But if a single copy of a virus gets through, it may penetrate and commandeer one of that person’s cells, instructing that cell to become a tiny virus-producing factory. For viruses like chicken pox, measles or herpes, the infected cells do nothing else and become so full of virus copies they finally burst, causing a tiny crater-like wound and an immediate immune reaction. However, the novel coronavirus is sneakier than that. It instructs each infected cell to export thousands of copies of the virus across its membrane into the outside world, while continuing to carry on the cell’s “official duties”. For a while, the person’s immune system patrols past the infected cell and notices nothing amiss - the cell looks okay from the outside, like a house where the lights come on at night and newspapers aren’t accumulating on the porch. Meanwhile, the neighboring cells are surrounded by that exported virus, become infected, and a chain reaction of infection begins. This can go on silently for days or weeks. Everytime an infected person coughs or breathes, they exhale a cloud of virus-laden droplets, even before they feel sick.
Eventually, most people’s immune systems will notice that many cells are not right, and begin aggressively destroying the bad cells. This is the moment you begin to feel sick and feverish. Unfortunately, the two week delay before recognition of all those infected cells can, in too many cases, cause the aggressive human immune response to get out of hand. The over-reaction destroys vast amounts of tissue, permanently damaging lungs, kidneys and possibly even brain tissue. The majority of people will survive a corona infection but sustain damage, just as the majority of humankind survived smallpox but were scarred for life. This coronavirus is not a bug you want to get!
The coronavirus is spreading, not just from cell to cell, but from house to house across our whole country. By the time you read this, the number of deaths nationally will be nearly 100,000, and it’s likely someone you know will have contracted the disease. I have been keeping close tabs on the advance of the virus in Merrimack County, Franklin and Andover, and the virus is here and beginning to spread with increasing speed. In the abstract, it seems like watching the advance of a California wildfire in slow motion. With the coronavirus swirling around us like an invisible wildfire, it would be foolish in the extreme to blithely travel out and about, without taking adequate precautions. That is why I have signed a letter with fellow Legislators of both the House and Senate, urging the Governor to enact a mandatory order for protective facemasks in public.
It has been shown that without social distancing and protective masks, the probability of catching coronavirus from encountering an infected person is very likely - about 75%. However, if both people are wearing masks, the probability drops below 1%. Those are good odds. Please always wear a mask. Be sure to cover both your nose and mouth, and wash or replace your mask after use. Simple soapy water absolutely destroys the virus on skin, clothing and frequently touched surfaces.
What we have been accomplishing by staying at home has had an important effect and has kept NH hospitals from becoming overwhelmed in the first months of the pandemic. But the trajectory of the disease continues to be upward. In March, the number of cases in our local area was zero, but we could observe the number of cases explode in the major metropolitan areas of Boston and New York, doubling every three days. In the week we began social distancing in NH, the virus continued to spread, but it now took seven days to double the number of cases. As the sixth week went by, the time to double had increased to fifteen days. At eight weeks out from the state of emergency declaration, cases are doubling every seventeen days. It is incorrect to describe the rate of infections as “slowing down”; it is still accelerating, but not as strongly as it accelerates without social distancing and staying at home.
I know everyone misses their “old normal” life and is impatient to get back to work or play as they once did. The White House and the Center for Disease Control both recommend that stay at home restrictions remain in place until the disease “has a downward trajectory for fourteen days”. At this time, the trajectory of the disease remains strongly upward. The number of cases continues to double roughly every two and a half weeks because infected people who don’t yet feel sick are still running around spreading the virus. These people are tools of the disease, acting as “invisible infectors”. In theory, if every single person in the world could go four weeks without exposing another person, the virus would become extinct. Sadly, we have not yet all agreed to cooperate this way, even though the lives of our friends and families, as well as our jobs and our livelihoods depend on it.
Someone you know might already be infected today, shedding a cloud of virus with every breath, and not even know it. It is not okay to ignore social distancing. It is not okay to go out in public without a face covering to protect the people around you. The disorderly clamor to “reopen the economy” while spreading the disease further is irresponsible and wrong-headed. What amount of money is more important than the lives of the other people around you? Is it your “right” to endanger the lives of people around you, just as surely as if you were driving drunk? Instead, please identify yourself as a responsible person by wearing a mask in public, and be courteous and kind in helping others remember their masks and to maintain a safe distance. If restrictions are lifted now while the disease is still increasing, the effect on people’s lives and the economy will be catastrophic and permanent. The consequences of the pandemic are so serious, our response must transcend our political and ideological differences. We are all in the same boat drifting toward certain disaster, and we must agree to row it together to escape.
The most important recent development in fighting the virus is that NH has received $61 million to expand COVID-19 testing. NH residents with any COVID-19 symptoms, or with underlying health conditions, or are over the age of 60, or who are healthcare workers can request and reserve a test. Interested individuals can sign up and reserve a test by going to the online portal at https://prd.blogs.nh.gov/dos/hsem/?page_id=8479. They can also email firstname.lastname@example.org, call the COVID-19 Coordinating Office at 603-271-5980, or by going through a health care provider. There are now seven drive-through testing sites as part of the Community-Based COVID-19 Testing Program. The drive-through testing locations are in Claremont, Concord, Lancaster, Milford, Plymouth, Tamworth and Rochester. The nearest to Andover is at 28 Stickney Avenue in Concord. You must sign up online or by phone to reserve a test. Please share this information with those who need to know about it. If we can identify “invisible infectors”, we can begin to trace all the folks they have exposed, isolate and treat them, and beat back the wildfire advance of coronavirus, as several other countries have already done.
While we don’t yet have a vaccine, we have effective weapons to slow the accelerating spread. The virus is nothing but a mindless set of instructions for creating a mutiny in human cells, incapable of altering its behavior. We humans however are intelligent and adaptable. We can change how we behave to protect ourselves, our families and our neighbors. We know that our bodies are virtual fortresses against viral infections, and our vulnerabilities to coronavirus are few and very specific. The coronavirus can only be spread by droplets or aerosol from an infected person’s lungs, being inhaled or similarly transferred to another person’s airways. If we wear masks, wash our hands frequently and avoid touching our noses, mouth or eyes (as medical professionals routinely do) we can avoid spreading our own undiscovered infection to others, and we can avoid becoming infected ourselves. This is not just about our own personal protection, but about protecting our whole world of friends, neighbors and relatives.
We have a chance to reverse the spread of the disease, by heeding scientific experts who are working around the clock to bring us accurate information, to develop better lab tests and to develop new vaccines and effective treatments. Please be safe, help protect everyone else in our wonderful community, and look for ways to help your neighbors who are struggling to get through this.
Ken Wells represents Andover, Danbury and Salisbury in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.