New Hampshire Speaker of the House Richard "Dick" Hinch died of COVID-19, an autopsy found.
New Hampshire Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jennie V. Duval made the determination after Hinch’s death on Wednesday, which his office had called "this unexpected tragedy." The 71-year-old had been speaker for a week.
"During this difficult time, the family has requested that their privacy continue to be respected," Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald said in a statement announcing the results of the autopsy Thursday.
Rep. Sherman Packard, who represents Londonderry and is serving his 15th term in the House, will remain the acting speaker until the full House membership meets Jan. 6.
“We are deeply saddened that the pandemic that spares no one afflicted our friend and colleague,” Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said in a joint statement.
They said they "take extremely seriously" their responsibility to protect the health and safety of people who work at the Statehouse and to ensure people are notified transparently about COVID-19 cases.
Democrats' leaders in the Legislature, Rep. Renny Cushing and Sen. Donna Soucy, on Thursday called for COVID testing to be made available to all Statehouse staff who want it as well as for all legislators who attended last week's opening session of the Legislature.
Hinch was starting his seventh term as a representative from Merrimack. He was previously the leader of his party in the House, which flipped from Democrats' control to Republicans' in November's election, and before that was House majority leader.
He spoke at the Organization Day ceremony last week, where members of the 400-member House and 24-member Senate were sworn in and he was elected speaker. He urged lawmakers to view each other as “friends and colleagues,” rather than members of opposing parties, particularly during a pandemic.
Gov. Chris Sununu on Wednesday ordered flags to fly at half-staff. He said at his regular coronavirus briefing Thursday that Hinch was an "incredible close friend" to him and many other people in New Hampshire.
"He was a tireless leader, an incredible advocate for his community. He will without a doubt be sorely missed," Sununu said, adding that Hinch's death "is a stark reminder that this virus doesn't care if you're in a long-term care facility, if you're an elected official -- no one is immune."
Coronavirus has been something of a hot-button issue for the New Hampshire Legislature and in politics at large in the state, which prizes personal liberties perhaps more than any other in the nation. Like the rest of the nation, it's also dealing with a major COVID-19 surge.
The swearing-in was held outdoors at the University of New Hampshire to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But more than a quarter of House members, most of them Democrats, skipped the ceremony after learning the day before that several Republican lawmakers had tested positive for the virus after attending an indoor GOP caucus meeting Nov. 20 where many attendees weren't wearing masks.
Sununu, a Republican, has urged residents to take the virus seriously and wear masks to keep the pandemic from worsening. When he announced a mask mandate in New Hampshire last month, another member of his party tweeted that he’d attend a meeting without a mask, writing, “Try to stop me.”
“It was horribly managed," Sununu said last week when asked about the caucus meeting. There was an open buffet at the gathering, and “a lot” of the participants were not wearing masks or socially distancing, he said.
Packard and Morse said in Thursday's statement that they will consult with the state's health and administrative experts "regarding their advice on any additional, specific steps we should take, beyond our on-going COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing, to ensure the continued protection of our legislators and staff."
New Hampshire has reported 570 coronavirus deaths from 27,592 cases as of Wednesday, the most recently available information, but the pandemic has been surging lately. The state was averaging 740 coronavirus tests on Dec. 8, up from 197 a month before and 63 one month before that.
The Democrats' statement offered more grim statistics: "New Hampshire currently leads every state in New England in positive test rates, increasing over 50% in the last 2 weeks. The deaths of Granite Staters have increased by 289% and hospitalizations by 84%, a striking statistic memorializing lives who should be remembered as so much more than a number."