The sudden death of New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch was caused by COVID-19, a medical examiner ruled Thursday, sparking renewed criticism of state lawmakers who have defied safety guidelines during the pandemic.
The news came a day after the 71-year-old, a longtime Republican state representative from Merrimack, died unexpectedly. He had been sworn in as speaker last week.
Mourning over his death was accompanied Thursday by sharp accusations that Republican lawmakers had put lives at risk by refusing to wear masks in public settings and take other precautions against the virus.
New Hampshire House minority leader Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, accused Hinch’s colleagues of flouting public health guidelines, which he said contributed to making the State House “an epicenter of COVID spread.”
”I don’t understand why people feel entitled to infect other people,” said Cushing, who added that he liked Hinch personally and stressed that he did not know where the speaker had contracted the virus.
Cushing called for contact tracing findings in Hinch’s case to be made public, saying that authorities had a responsibility to Hinch’s fellow lawmakers and State House staffers “to see the extent to which others have been exposed.”
“I think it is important to the people of the State of New Hampshire to see how COVID is moving,” he said.
State Representative William Marsh, an ophthalmologist from Brookfield, extended his condolences to Hinch’s family while blaming some fellow Republicans for downplaying the risks of the virus.
“I believe the peer pressure exerted by those in the Republican Party who refuse to take reasonable precautions is the ultimate cause of Speaker Hinch’s passing,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Earlier this month, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said that a recent indoor GOP caucus meeting that resulted in at least four lawmakers contracting coronavirus was “horribly managed.” There was an open buffet at the gathering and “a lot” of the participants were not wearing masks or socially distancing, he said.
Democrats learned of the Nov. 20 meeting, held indoors at McIntyre Ski Area, the day before the Legislature was sworn in at the University of New Hampshire.
The Department of Health and Human Services conducted contact tracing to alert lawmakers who were in close contact with their infected colleagues, and a letter went out to the rest of the GOP members, he said. Republican leaders should have also notified Democrats, Sununu said.
“It was badly managed from the beginning, and communication should’ve been much better,” he said earlier this month.
The Concord Monitor has also reported that two additional representatives who attended a freshman orientation session for new lawmakers in late November tested positive for the coronavirus. It’s not clear where Hinch contracted the virus.
In a message sent Thursday morning to the state’s medical examiner that Marsh shared with the Globe, the GOP lawmaker said that Hinch had attended the Nov. 20 caucus, which he indicated is under review by contact tracers.
In his message, which was sent before authorities announced the cause of Hinch’s death, Marsh asked whether the medical examiner would be investigating the circumstances given that Hinch “put various members of the public, including myself, at risk by insisting on in-person, face-to-face meetings in the week prior to his death.”
A real estate agent elected last month to his seventh term as a state representative, Hinch had previously served as the House Republican leader and the House majority leader, and had set a goal of becoming speaker.
Republicans picked up control of both the state House and the Senate last month, and Hinch was sworn in Dec. 2. Representative Sherm Packard, a Republican who was serving as deputy speaker, will be the acting speaker for now.
On Wednesday, Sununu said he was profoundly sad to learn of Hinch’s death and ordered flags across the state to fly at half-staff in his honor. In a statement, he recalled Hinch as a “close friend and a respected public servant.”
“His loss will be greatly felt by the people of this state, and I ask Granite Staters to join me in praying for his family during this incredibly difficult time,” he said.
More than 28,000 New Hampshire residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and 584 people have died.
James Pindell of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used.