By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – With nine new deaths and 183 new cases of COVID-19 in two days, New Hampshire is suffering its worst week since the pandemic began.
Although part of the increase is due to a doubling in testing, the hope of lifting the stay-at-home orders set to expire May 4 is dimming, Gov. Chris Sununu acknowledged at a press briefing Thursday afternoon.
The state reported three new fatalities and 84 new cases Thursday, a day after it had reported six new deaths and 99 new cases on Wednesday.
And released information about five outbreaks at extended care facilities.
Sununu called the jump in new cases “sobering data,” but a product of more testing.
Sununu said he was pleased to report, however, that the state has received $1.25 billion in its checking account to help businesses, nonprofits, hospitals and increased testing for COVID-19 and that he has advisory groups working daily to come up with a quick plan to distribute the money.
He also said he is pleased that a Superior Court judge agreed to dismiss a case from four Democratic legislators challenging his emergency authority to distribute that money.
And he said he is looking closely at what to do about the Laconia Motorcycle Week in June. He wants to wait as long as possible to decide whether to hold it or allow it to be rescheduled for September. The rally attracts hundreds of thousands of people each year to events across the state.
The state also announced outbreaks at two new extended care facilities, both in the town of Derry.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services said Derry Health and Rehabilitation Center had eight residents and five staff sickened by COVID-19, and Pleasant Valley Nursing Home had four residents and three staff members testing positive.
They join nursing facilities in Nashua, Salem, Dover, and Manchester and two extended care facilities for people with developmental disabilities in Concord and Greenfield who previously experienced outbreaks.
Shibinette said Easter Seals in Manchester had 44 residents and 56 staff members who tested positive; Hanover Hill in Manchester had 47 residents and 40 staff members; Bellamy Fields in Dover with 33 residents and 10 staff; Salem Woods in Salem with 21 residents and 5 staff; The Huntington in Nashua with 23 residents and 17 staff.
Shibinette noted it takes several weeks of having no positive tests to be able to clear a facility from an outbreak.
“So although I am still announcing numbers for some of those facilities, some have had several days with no new positives at all,” Shibinette said.
With no decline in sight, however, Sununu said he has an advisory group meeting daily to look at issues for reopening the state and is looking at distributing recently released federal funding to help alleviate the financial strain on businesses and families across the state.
Sununu said he is likely next week to make the call on whether to lift stay-at-home orders to help reduce the spread of the disease and space out the impact on hospitals.
“The data just isn’t supporting pulling back right now,” Sununu said.
In an afternoon media briefing at the State Fire Academy, Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state’s epidemiologist, put the state’s numbers in a global and national context.
There are 2.6 million cases of COVID-19 globally and 845,000 cases in the United States and over the past seven weeks, New Hampshire has tested 16,809 individuals with 1,670 testing positive, Chan said.
In the state, 15 percent have required hospitalizations from the illness and about 3 percent have died. New Hampshire has some of the lowest mortality rates in New England, per capita, Sununu said.
The three most recent deaths were all residents at long-term care facilities, Chan said.
“We don’t believe there is an increase in the spread,” Chan said, “rather an increase in the testing.”
He said this week, the state and its partners tested roughly 800 to 900 people per day. Last week it was about 450 per day, he said.
“We continue to ramp that up because testing becomes an important tool to rapidly identify, suppress and cluster the infections…particularly in assisted living facilities,” Chan said.
So far, there have been two confirmed cases of the virus among the state’s homeless population and “that is a fluid number,” with the state using its Dube Building since Monday at the former Laconia State School and hotels for quarantining individuals, Shibinette confirmed.
Sununu said as of this week, the state received from the U.S. Treasury $1.25 billion from the CARES Act which fulfills the total expected, and some guidance on how to use that money.
“That is an incredible responsibility and obviously something we take very, very seriously,” he said.
The Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery, or GOFERR, will move quickly to get the federal relief money out the door, Sununu said.
“We are going to dispense those funds in a transparent, responsible and accountable manner. We are going to create guidelines for all the business sectors, non-profits…and as fast a manner as possible.”
He cautioned that the new federal money will not be used to fill revenue shortfalls and said he met with the mayors of the state by phone Thursday morning to remind them of that fact, which he has already shared with legislative leaders.
Sununu said the state does have some specific questions for the U.S. Treasury to make sure the state understands the guidelines quickly and ensure that it does not “clawback” funds.
“What we do know is there is flexibility,” Sununu said, but “we have to follow those rules.”
He said he was also hopeful that a new round of funding of almost $500 billion will be approved Thursday by the U.S. Congress and that can add to the 11,500 businesses that have received relief from the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, which ran out of money last week.
Sununu said it is hoped that the new round will not be on the first-come, first-served basis of the first round but will involve a “deeper dive” into the need.
He said he is also hopeful that there will be money for hospitals struggling financially and for more testing, but he noted one of the downsides of having some of the lowest mortality rates is that the state does not get top priority for additional funding for testing materials.
Sununu called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statements that states should look to bankruptcy rather than the federal government for more help “ridiculous” and a “dangerous comment.”