By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – New Hampshire municipalities will get $40 million from the state, businesses will get free masks and first responders will see an extra $300 a week in their paychecks, Gov. Chris Sununu and health leaders announced on Monday.
The news was also positive on the statistical front with no new deaths reported Monday. There were 72 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 Monday, down from the past few days which have seen higher numbers.
The state is hoping the trend will continue as it moves toward flex opening some aspects of the state’s economy this week and in the coming week.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, said New Hampshire is seeing some promising, stabilizing data but still needs to control the pandemic through social distancing.
Chan said people need to continue to stay at home as much as possible, use cloth masks while out in public, and as the weather improves, keep their pets on a leash and away from other people.
Sununu said with 86 COVID-19 deaths in the state so far and 2,588 total cases, the concern is still out there and the public needs to continue to stay at home when possible.
“Mentally we are all itching to get about,” Sununu said.
Sununu said that $40 million will be offered to communities impacted by COVID-19 between March 1 and Oct. 31.
The money, he said, would hopefully bridge the gap between what towns and cities have incurred and what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will eventually provide.
He said towns from “Pittsburg to Portsmouth” are eligible. He said Berlin would receive $246,000, and Claremont $300,000.
The money, part of the $1.25 billion that the state received from the federal CARES Act, is not designed to backfill fiscal shortfalls, he said, but to address added costs due to COVID-19.
These can include increased social services, shelter, food, telework costs, and childcare for first responders.
Effective May 4, the governor announced a raise for first responders. Full-time first responders will be eligible for an additional $300 a week in pay, Sununu said. These include firefighters, EMS, law enforcement and corrections.
These are people who are “putting themselves at risk” in this pandemic and Sununu said the state wants to do “everything we can” to help them.
His biggest concern, he told reporters at an afternoon press briefing Monday, is the continued sight of vehicles coming from Massachusetts into the state as he noticed this weekend.
Massachusetts has reported 3,846 deaths and 66,267 cases and is under a stay-at-home order.
While Sununu announced Friday the flex opening of some retail, hair salons, outdoor dining at restaurants and golf and camping for New Hampshire residents and members only, he said he can’t go to opening the ocean beaches right now because of the enticing effect it would have on Massachusetts residents who don’t have either beach or golf and are supposed to stay at home.
“That’s concerning more than anything to be honest,” Sununu said, noting “they need to abide by their stay-at-home order just as we do.”
Chan said while there is no evidence that people get COVID-19 from their pets after they have been touched by someone with the virus, he said there are rare cases where animals have gotten the virus. He suggested people keep their pets leashed in public and away from other people while outside.
The state’s testing for COVID-19 has ramped up and now over 1,000 tests are being conducted daily with the goal of ramping it up to 1,500 per day, Sununu said. Last week five new testing sites and a mobile unit were deployed in addition to state, hospital, and private lab access.
So far, Chan said 26,870 of the state’s 1.3 million people have been tested. While the number of tests administered is going up and the percentage of positive cases is going down, the state’s hospitalization rate is steady at about 11 percent, all positive developments for a return to a new normal.
Following Friday’s announcement to flex open parts of the state’s business economy, Sununu said the state launched its “mask portal” allowing businesses to tap into the state’s stockpile of personal protective equipment.
So far over 2,100 businesses have requested PPE “and we can approve all of them,” Sununu said, and they will be offered for free.
Businesses may request the material at nheconomy.com/covid
Vice President Mike Pence, who is chair of the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 Task Force, talked with governors Monday. Sununu said the focus was on ramped up testing and supplies to support testing. He also noted that there are FEMA efforts to distribute PPE to extended-care living facilities.
Sununu and Dr. Chan said the priority this week is to work with the dental industry to allow them to offer elective procedures, in addition to emergencies in a phased approach going forward.
Dentists voluntarily decided in March, based on national industry guidelines, to limit their work to emergency procedures.
But there was hope among the industry that the governor would approve recommendations to allow for elective procedures, as he did hospitals for elective procedures.
Sununu said because dentists and their employees work in people’s mouths, there is even more of a risk of transmission of the virus than a typical hospital procedure. Another issue is adequate personal protective equipment.
“We would like to get them open,” Sununu said. “We would have to do it safe. We have to get them all on the same page,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone is on board, with a phased approach.”
Chan said oral health is part of the critical health-care services the state wants people to access, not just in emergencies but in preventative care.
“We want to prevent people from getting into an emergent situation,” he said.
Right now there can be extractions and other emergency procedures which could have people going instead to emergency rooms – which the state wants to prevent – but cavities are growing larger and deeper with each week of the pandemic.
Chan said he would be working with dentists, oral surgeons, and hygienists this week on a plan “to open more broadly.”
He said dentists donated a lot of PPE material at the beginning of the pandemic and the state needs a thoughtful approach to make sure there is adequate supply.
“We have to do it safely,” Sununu said. “We want to make sure everyone is on board.”
It certainly, Chan said, is a priority to have dentists open sooner rather than later.