By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – New Hampshire could see a peak of the COVID-19 virus by late April or early May and is working hard to get more medical equipment to deal with the expected surge, the Executive Council was told at its regular meeting on Wednesday.
The state announced at 5:30 p.m. there are 29 new cases overnight bringing the total to 137.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette briefed the council saying it is far from over and likely going to get worse in New Hampshire.
As of Tuesday night, New Hampshire had reported one death and 108 people tested positive for the coronavirus, with about a dozen hospitalized. She would not specify which hospitals are caring for the patients.
There were, Shibinette said, 2,500 people who have been tested and approximately 800 results pending. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon brought online its COVID-19 testing lab Tuesday, she said.
“So we expect to have a fairly high escalation in our positives,” Shibinette said.
With about 1,000 ventilators in the state for 1.3 million people and some on order, Shibinette said a focus is to ramp up and source necessary protective equipment and health-care supplies to prepare for surge capacity.
Shibinette was among several commissioners peppered with questions about the pandemic in the first council meeting that was held remotely because of the virus.
Another area the state is focusing on is setting up flex centers across the state with each community involved to prepare how to handle an overload of cases should they overwhelm hospitals.
There will be surge hospital facilities in Manchester, Nashua, Durham, Concord and in the Cheshire County areas, she said with the first already established in Manchester with 250 beds this week at Southern New Hampshire University.
The planning is still underway with help to set up coming from the New Hampshire National Guard, she said.
For those with very mild symptoms of the very contagious virus, and who do not want to bring it home to families or have nowhere to go, the state is planning to find hotels to allow for such isolation, Shibinette said.
The five executive councilors – who each represent a region of the state – have been hearing from many constituents with questions as the state grapples with the health emergency.
Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli of Nashua, a Democrat, called on Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to order citizens to shelter in place.
But Sununu said there are practical considerations for enforcing such an order, and said his current orders, although they can change, are largely in line with neighboring states.
“We have to take a regional approach,” Sununu said noting that the state was considered among the most advanced for taking actions to protect citizens. The state is listed as eighth in the nation on per capita testing, Sununu said.
Vermont, he said, may be the exception of the neighboring states because “they have quite an issue,” with half of New Hampshire’s population and a similar number of cases.
The governor has closed schools, restaurants, bars – except for take-out – and urged people to stay at home. If they are in public, they should be more than six feet from each other with gatherings limited to 10 people.
Sununu said many hair and nail salons had closed voluntarily, for example, but he could issue emergency orders additionally for closures if necessary.
Shibinette said the state’s priority is preparedness and first up is the personal protective equipment for health-care workers, sought three times from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
She said it “dribbles in” and goes out the door as fast as it came in. She and Sununu said the state is in the business of buying personal protective equipment in a big way and is hoping to manage a “tight” bridge between current supplies and what companies are now ramping up to provide.
“A lot of people are stepping up,” Sununu told councilors, noting he heard from a manufacturer of hockey masks switching production to provide face shields for health-care workers to protect them from getting sick.
For the first time, the New Hampshire Executive Council held its meeting by phone and over the computers, and Sununu said, he thought it went pretty well, although a bit slower than usual and without the fanfare and crowds.
It involved a call-in, people identifying themselves as they spoke and a roll call on every vote. It is likely to go forward this way for the time being.
Kimberly Chabot of Henniker and John Curran of Londonderry were both confirmed as Circuit Court judges, with terms that end at age 70.
Two weeks ago, hearings were held for the two where they were praised for their preparedness for the job.
Sununu asked for quick consideration of his nominee for New Hampshire State Police Capt. Nathan Noyes of New Boston to become the next State Police Colonel. Sununu called Noyes a “great candidate.” He also called for fast consideration for his nomination of Eddie Edwards to be the director of the Office of Professional Licensure.
He called the latter a “very vital role” right now in this crisis and he wanted to discourage a call by Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, a Democrat of Concord, to hold a public hearing in light of the situation.
Volinsky later in the meeting said he thought that there was no hurry, that the interim director was working well and that Edwards deserved a hearing.
No date for a hearing was set but Executive Councilor Russell Prescott, a Republican from Kingston, said one should be held soon.
Volinsky, along with state Sen. Dan Feltes of Concord, are both running against for the Democratic nomination for governor. Sununu has indicated he will seek another term and is the only Republican to do so.
Councilor Pignatelli asked the governor if the deadline for federal taxes being filed has been moved back from April to July 15, might the state look at the same time frame.
Sununu called it a “great question” and noted he is meeting to discuss this and “what flexibility we can and should provide. I think we can do something on this front.”
Pignatelli asked Sununu to ask Secretary of State William Gardner to attend the next meeting to discuss how he plans to go forward with crowds, voting booths and anything that he sees are issues in light of the pandemic. Voters will be going to the polls in September and November.
Sununu said he would be happy to make the request but encouraged councilors to talk with Gardner directly.
Commissioner of Safety Robert Quinn briefed the council on homeland security and said the system has been working well. “We’ve been training many years,” he said, and the “system is working to meet the demands every day.”
George Copadis, commissioner of the Department of Employment Security said a ramped-up call center to deal with unemployment has stepped up to the plate.
He noted that before COVID-19, the department was handling about 500 new cases a week. Last week, they fielded 13,000 calls at the call center.
This week, he said, they have had 41,304 new registrations for unemployment insurance. The agency was among the first to close its doors and go to remote processing. They have been working 12 hour days, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to allow people “to get the money they are entitled to” and need.
He urged the public to go to www.nhes.nh.gov or call 271-7700.
Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks said as of 11:44 a.m. Wednesday there were no positive cases of COVID-19 among the population in state corrections or the staff.
Executive Councilor Mike Cryans, a Democrat from Hanover, asked about cases and what is being done to protect the population.
Hanks said screenings are being asked of everyone coming in and body temperature is taken and special procedures are in place for transfers of inmates from other populations in other locations.
Cryans asked officials from the liquor commission about measures being taken to minimize numbers in the stores at any given time, social distancing and other concerns of employees.
He was told some of the liquor enforcement staff are being dispatched to help with crowd and distancing issues so that the clerks do not have to do that and that they are asking people to maintain distances.
Workers who do not feel comfortable dealing with the public are being given the opportunity to do other work, the councilors were told.
The council was told the commission is actively working on a curbside solution so that people would not have to go into the stores. It would be separate from online sales.
Other Action The council approved $1.3 million in turnpike funds for the redesign of the existing main toll plaza of the Spaulding turnpike to go to an all-electronic toll.
It also approved $500,000 to improve the water and wastewater system for Ivey Hill Cooperative in Exeter and $290,000 in grant money to rehabilitate the Vernon Kelly Apartments in Derry.
The next meeting is on April 8.