By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Three months to the day since the state’s first case of COVID-19 was announced, Gov. Chris Sununu said on Wednesday we have likely already hit bottom and using charts provided an optimistic update on the direction of the pandemic.
And while he made no promises, Sununu said he hoped he could lift some aspects of his March stay-at-home order by June 15 or some aspects by as early as this Friday.
“We are going to take it step-by-step but we are going to get through this,” Sununu reassured.
Sununu’s news conference ranged from the metrics used to open up the economy, support for rallies decrying the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the state’s right-to-know law and executive privilege during the emergency, releasing the secret names of police on the so-called “Laurie’s List” to what the odds are that there will be fall school sports.
The substantive briefing came after state health officials announced 47 new cases of COVID-19 in New Hampshire and nine new deaths totaling 265.
Almost 80 percent of those deaths have been among elderly living in long-term care facilities, and it continues to be “an active area of work” to protect those individuals, said Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette announced a new partner, Maco Medical Lab, which will be going into all the nursing homes to test staff and residents on a rolling basis starting now and a new partnership in the North Country between Littleton Hospital and Clear ChoiceMD to offer testing for the virus with a capacity of handling up to 125 tests a day in the parking lot at the hospital.
The new agreement for testing in nursing homes will allow for a quicker turnaround of results and provide relief to the state lab which has been having to handle these tests, Shibinette said.
Sununu said the state is doing a “good job” protecting nursing home residents yet it has among the highest percentage of overall deaths in nursing homes compared to the rest of the public. Sununu said that was a comparative ratio and a reflection of what a good job the state is doing to protect the public outside, and defended other statistics among New England which show the Granite State has a lower percentage of nursing homes with the virus and a lower percentage of residents within those homes who die, except for Maine.
“It is a sign we are doing a very good job of keeping the mortality rate outside those facilities very low,” he said. “Relatively speaking we are doing an excellent job,” Sununu said.
He did not answer the question of a lack of testing ability in the nursing homes early on in the virus outbreak was a reason for such a comparatively high rate of deaths.
Also, InDepthNH.org asked why the New Hampshire Science and Public Health Task Force has been waiting for weeks to hear a response to its right to know request and whether the state law which demands public access was being suspended during the emergency and if he would invoke executive privilege to keep documents from the public.
Sununu said he did not know of the specific request but the right-to-know law is still in effect and he said he would make documents available if the fit the criteria for release. He, however, said he would maintain executive privilege in cases where information needed to be kept secret.
Nine new deaths were reported with six of those individuals residents of long-term care facilities, said Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist.
In addition to announcing the new cases, six more individuals have required hospitalizations with now 468 or about 10 percent of the total number diagnosed with the virus having needed hospitalizations.
A total of 76,000 of the state’s 1.3 million residents have now been tested for the virus with an average of about 1,700 tests administered every day. Now, anyone who wants a test for the virus can get one and Sununu urged people to take advantage of the testing.
There were no new outbreaks at any long-term care facilities to report, Shibinette noted.
Sununu said he would make the call, based on health advice, but he guessed there is a “50-50” chance he would support the return of sports to the school fields in the fall. He has allowed for some practice to occur this summer but he said it would be more likely he would approve outdoor sports which are low-contact first.
He said parents could not be left out and he would look at allowing groups of more than 10 in some cases but his decisions would be based on concerns for the spread of the virus.
“We have to decide on management of crowds,” Sununu said. “You can’t cut parents out of the equation,” and they would need to be able to attend such events. He said there is a clear mental health value for sports but he worried about indoor, high-contact sports.
“It’s about taking the right steps with public health, the right balance,” he said.
Sununu was asked, in light of the George Floyd case, if he would consider releasing the names of law enforcement officers on the so-called “Laurie List,” a secret compilation of names of officers who have been disciplined for dishonesty or other infractions.
He said he would refer the matter to the attorney general but it was his understanding the main reason for the secret list was one of due process. Sununu said he would be willing to revisit the issue, but “everyone should be allowed to have some due process.”
Sununu praised organizers and attendees at a rally in support of racial justice in Manchester Tuesday night, and said the right and need for civil discourse has to be allowed even in a time of his stay-at-home orders, social distancing and protecting the virus from the coronavirus.
There will likely be spikes, he said, particularly with recent gatherings, but he said rights to civil discourse should not be compared to his stay-at-home orders.
People should be able to go out and gather safely to protest police brutality, he said, and to decry injustice.
“A lot of the protesters wear masks,” and Sununu said he appreciated that.
“The George Floyd issue is incredibly important, not just now but for the next 20 years,” Sununu said, and when these incidents happen it is important that people be able to express themselves.
“It hits home with me and a lot of people,” Sununu said about the murder of the unarmed black man, whose life was taken by a sworn police officer.
“I understand it.”