Rep. Dick Hinch, a Republican who was elected speaker of the New Hampshire House just one week ago, died of COVID-19 on Wednesday. This comes about a month before the state legislature, the largest in the U.S., is expected to convene for its regularly scheduled annual session.
The state's attorney general, Gordon MacDonald, announced the cause of death Thursday afternoon with the consent of Hinch's family, following an autopsy by New Hampshire Chief Medical Examiner Jennie Duval.
Hinch, who was 71 and from Merrimack, was poised to lead his party in the state's House of Representatives. New Hampshire Republicans gained control of both the House and the state Senate from Democrats in elections last month.
Hinch was formally elected House speaker on Dec. 2 at an outdoor session held on an athletic field at the University of New Hampshire because of coronavirus concerns. Earlier that same week, several Republican House members were confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus after attending an indoor GOP caucus meeting.
Since then, a member of Gov. Chris Sununu's staff and an employee in the House speaker's office have also tested positive, according to announcements from each office. At the time the legislative staffer's diagnosis was announced, the House speaker's office said: "no legislators were identified as close contacts."
"All staff identified as possible close contacts have been notified and asked to quarantine out of an abundance of caution," the office said in a statement at the time.
After state officials confirmed that COVID-19 caused Hinch's death, acting Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse said they plan to consult with state health officials and other authorities about "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."
"As legislative leaders, we are committed to protecting the health and safety of our fellow legislators and staff members who work at the statehouse in Concord," Packard and Morse said in a joint statement. "It is our responsibility to ensure COVID-19 incident notification and transparency. These are responsibilities that we take extremely seriously."
Before becoming House speaker, Hinch served as House majority leader from 2015 to 2018.
In his speech to fellow lawmakers upon being named speaker, he invoked a bipartisan tone.
"I ask each of you to not look at each other as Republicans and Democrats, but as friends and colleagues, working towards the same goal," Hinch said. "Our methods to get there and what we envision as a better New Hampshire may be different, but at the end of the day, please remember that we have a responsibility to respect each other and understand each other, that we are all here to make a positive difference in our communities and our state."
Packard, who was appointed Hinch's deputy, will serve as acting speaker until the full House can vote to name Hinch's successor. The House is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 6.