By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – As the state ramps up COVID-19 testing and distributed its first batch of the drug Remdesivir to hospitals, eight new deaths were announced Wednesday and seven of the deceased had been residents of long-term care facilities.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced 63 new cases of the novel coronavirus totaling 3,299 statewide. Since March, 150 citizens have died from the virus.
Testing the state’s 1.3 million residents is at about 3 percent now with daily testing averaging 1,478, she said. The daily positive rate was 5.5 percent Wednesday, the lowest it has been reported to date. It had been hovering at about 10 percent last week with about 1,100 tests given daily.
Shibinette said she hoped the state would be averaging 2,000 tests a day next week. More testing helps to inform the state of the presence of the virus and is a factor being used by governors across the nation to help determine when and how much they should allow the economy to reopen.
Other factors include hospitalization rates which have been stable in the state for weeks now, but one area of deep concern is the number of residents of extended-care facilities who are falling ill and dying.
The White House issued guidance suggesting New Hampshire should have almost 2,700 tests a day, according to Michael Beyer of the New Hampshire Democratic Party in a news release.
Beyer said the state is far from the guidance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Trump Administration’s leading epidemiologist who addressed a Senate Committee this week, warning that reopening the nation too fast could have devastating consequences.
Also on Wednesday, the New Hampshire Science and Public Health Task Force filed a right-to-know request calling on Shibinette and Sununu to release data and information relating to the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This information is being used by Chris Sununu and the state to attempt to justify his early reopening plan.
“Last week Governor Sununu suggested that he was basing early reopening decisions on a downward case trend he was seeing, when in fact the cases were not trending downwards,” the task force said in a news release.
“Governor Sununu is starting an early reopening using data that is not available to the public to justify the course of action,” said task force member Michael Dowe, MD. “Governor Sununu needs to put public health first, and that includes being transparent with the data he is using to make public health decisions.”
Sununu said at the press conference that his decisions to reopen some aspects of life here are measured and based on science, stakeholder input, and above all advice from the state’s health officials.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Sununu said. “Will we see another surge? Likely yes…so taking these steps today helps us get the data and controlled process” to reopen.
That includes testing data, adequate materials for hospital workers, and adequate numbers of hospital beds. Sununu said the state has made masks available to businesses to help them reopen and more are on the way.
He said the state has sent out thousands of orders through its nh.gov website and earlier this week, another 7 million masks were received with another 10 million expected later this week.
He thanked various businesses for helping and for retooling operations to allow for more personal protective equipment including Body Armor, Coldpac, and Circular Blu of Bradford.
He said $25 million has gone toward securing personal protective equipment.
The antiviral medication Remdesivir, which studies have shown to help the symptoms of COVID-19, has arrived in the state and has been distributed to hospitals primarily in Southern New Hampshire, Shibinette said.
These include Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, Elliot Hospital in Manchester, Southern New Hampshire Medical Services, Exeter Hospital, Frisbee Memorial, Parkland, Portsmouth and Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover.
Nursing Home Testing
Shibinette said between 30 and 40 percent of all long-term care residents have been tested to date and anticipated all will be tested in the state within the next two weeks.
A majority of the testing at nursing homes has occurred in the southern part of the state which has been hit hardest by the highly transmittable viral disease.
The long-term care stabilization fund, to ensure critical staff is available for those most vulnerable, has received 282 applications from eligible long-term care facilities covering over 22,000 workers who are getting a weekly $300 stipend, and Sununu said that number may grow.
In addition, Sununu said he signed an emergency order this week to allow temporary licensing with online training for more health-care aides at nursing homes. He called it a measure to break down barriers to keep the doors open.
While these workers would not necessarily be able to do all that the trained care providers can do, they could certainly help at these critical care facilities.
The governor said the state is taking applications to work at Hampton Beach State Park but it doesn’t mean there will be jobs offered. Like town ponds and local beaches, the state is trying to plan ahead in the event that the beaches can open.
“We are not now making any commitment to open,” Sununu said.
Meanwhile, officials at Hampton Beach are pressing Sununu’s task force to approve guidance that would allow the beach to open June 1, at least to people walking, swimming, and surfing, and to then allow for sunbathing in time for the Fourth of July.
A vote is expected as early as tomorrow.
Sununu was non-committal. And he said any plan has to get a pass from the state health department.
“I think right now it is a wait-and-see approach,” Sununu said. And he has said he wants it to be a regional approach with the neighboring states.
Massachusetts expects to make announcements on reopening next Monday but Sununu noted that in the Bay State, beach openings are often left to local municipalities. Massachusetts has some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 per capita in the nation.
Sununu said we have time, noting it recently snowed.
Colder conditions exist in the North Country making it harder for restaurants to open outdoors-only on May 18, in addition to existing permission for take-out and delivery under the governor’s Stay-at-Home 2.0 guidelines.
Tom Eastman, a reporter for the Conway Daily Sun, asked Sununu if there could be alterations to the plan in the future to allow for some regions of the state to be able to open dining indoors as well.
“Yes,” Sununu said. “We know that the guidance we put out is not perfect for everyone,” he said of the first phase, adding he will continue to look at ways to open up regionally where it might make sense going forward.
New Stimulus Bill
Sununu said he is taking a wait-and-see approach on whether he supports additional stimulus bills being considered in Washington. One bill estimated at costing $3 trillion is being “batted around” in Congress which would allow for the $600 a week differential pay for the unemployed to continue past July and as long as the end of the calendar year.
Some New Hampshire businesses have said that it could impact their ability to get people back to work.
The current stimulus “has provided an immense opportunity for our citizens…and has been very productive in New Hampshire to get through a temporary bump in the road,” allowing individuals to pay their bills, Sununu said.
He predicted the proposal in Washington is not necessarily what is going to pass. Whether he would support extending the payments past July would really depend on the situation with the virus.
“We will have better data (then) to see if it is a hindrance,” to business, and “what is that balance?”
He said barriers would have to be explored such as concerns for health, child care, fears.
“I think it remains to be seen whether it is a good or bad thing,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Sununu admitted he is not getting the sleep he is used to and he is getting through by eating lots of chocolate and drinking lots more coffee.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s been tough,” Sununu said, noting every day there is a new issue to tackle with COVID-19.
But as he lies awake, he said he thinks about the variables to the solution, who should be involved and works to strategize the path forward.
“I’m trying to stay as positive as I possibly can,” Sununu said.
He said he is not alone. The whole state team is rising to the occasion from the doctors and nurses who are working double shifts, to the health-care workers who have been contact tracing for every case of the virus, for the unemployment office workers who are on the phone trying to get benefits to those who need it.
“It’s not just me,” Sununu said. “We all have our part to play here.”