Editor’s Note: As the elections near, InDepthNH.org will offer the candidates vying to take on Gov. Chris Sununu the oportunity to respond to comments he makes at his regular press conferences that air live on WMUR.
By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Residents of New England can stay at New Hampshire hotels and short-term lodging as of today without the 14-day quarantine requirement and hospitals can start offering elective, non-time-sensitive surgeries with cases of COVID-19 continuing to decline, state officials announced on Thursday.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu removed the quarantine requirement for hotels on Thursday during his regular news conference, just in advance of the Fourth of July long weekend, while noting other New England states have taken the same action and are in similar positions relating to the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
Residents who leave the state to visit other locations in New England do not need to self-quarantine for 14 days after they return, he confirmed, but they do need to do so if they leave New England where cases of the virus are surging almost nationwide.
He said the five other states of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont are in a similar situation now in terms of COVID-19 and the decline of its spread.
“We are in a really good place in New Hampshire. We are blessed,” Sununu said, urging people to practice social distancing, wear masks, avoid crowds, and “enjoy New Hampshire for everything she gives us.”
But with 37 states surging with new virus cases and yesterday marking more than 50,000 new cases in one day, the nation’s highest, people from outside New England will still need to quarantine for 14 days before coming here and those leaving the state for those locations will need to quarantine for 14 days upon return.
Sununu urged residents not to leave New England now unless it is absolutely necessary.
The announcement came on a day when the state reported 21 new cases (totaling 5,822 since March) and two new deaths, totaling 375 lost lives to the highly transmissible respiratory virus.
Sununu said the vast majority – 80 to 85 percent – of all visitors to New Hampshire this weekend will be from New England.
He said there were thoughts about separating New England in half allowing those in the northern but not southern states to come without quarantining, but health officials looked at the rate of COVID-19 in each state the past few days.
For example, he said Massachusetts, which was once spiking, had about 150 new cases Wednesday, but they have five times the state’s population of 1.3 million.
“They are on par with us as are most states,” in the region, “so that is where we have a lot of confidence going forward.”
Sununu said if the state starts seeing outbreaks across New England, “we might have to take tougher action down the road. We can always pull back but right now we appear to be in a good place,” Sununu said.
Another fact in addition to the number of new cases has been in terms of people requiring hospitalization.
Two new patients were admitted to the state’s hospitals Thursday, totaling 567 hospitalizations throughout the course of the pandemic.
Dr. Benjamin Chan noted that over the last four or five days, these were the first two new admissions. This helps assure that the state’s hospital system is not overburdened and can handle new cases.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced that the state’s 26 hospitals can start offering elective surgeries now, as they have up until this point been handling only time-sensitive surgeries.
Shibinette said hospitals now have a reliable supply chain for personal protective equipment that they can access through their regular distributors. There is now also a 72-hour turnaround for pre-surgical COVID-19 testing.
And having the hospital capacity to handle both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients is now something the state has established.
“We definitely have the capacity,” for elective surgeries, now, she said.
Evidence of 14 days of the decline of community transmission has been documented and there are a host of other data points that “we collectively agree that hospitals can open up to non-time-sensitive surgeries,” Shibinette said.
Some hospitals are either not able or not willing to handle that right now but they are “looking at the landscape around them,” and know the best decisions for their community.
“We are very excited we are able to take this step,” she stressed, adding the state can “pull back. Right now we think it is a safe step for us to take.”
The virus has been particularly hard on the elderly and about 80 percent of the state’s 375 deaths, including the two new ones Thursday, related to residents of long-term care facilities like nursing homes.
To protect these fragile individuals, they have been isolated in their rooms and have not had the chance to eat with other residents or engage in activities.
Shibinette said these facilities, with the exception of those in the more populous and harder hit counties of Hillsborough and Rockingham, can start up with peer-to-peer interaction now.
Recently, the state allowed for these facilities without COVID-19 to allow for visitors on a one-to-one basis.
Shibinette also announced a four-week extension to the COVID-19 surveillance program in long-term care centers and noted that the contractor will also begin to test those living in assisted care facilities in the hardest-hit regions of the state, Rockingham and Hillsborough counties.
Main Street Relief
A map available online can help people see where the more than $300 million in federal CARES Act money for Main Street businesses has gone.
Sununu said that the map will have additional information going forward tracking where all the $1.25 billion went but it begins with the Main Street relief fund at www.goferr.gov.
For example, he said, the map shows 25 companies in Berlin received a total of $1.5 million. In Rochester, 56 businesses received $4.2 million and in Manchester, 355 businesses received nearly $25 million.
“We know it is not making businesses whole,” he said, but it will help towards property taxes, fixed costs and keeping the businesses viable.
Sununu said from his perspective, campaigning is not taking up a lot of his time right now. Traditionally, he said he would do up to seven events a day.
“Most of that is gone, almost all of it. Everything is virtual now,” Sununu said.
He said he missed interacting with people, really sitting down with people. But he said he is not going to go into crowds to shake hands, not as much door to door and maybe that is good enough for everybody.
Nancy West, publisher of InDepthNH.org, asked Sununu if it was fair to other gubernatorial candidates that he has two to three hours of free time exposure on the only statewide television station WMUR.
“This is not political,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of what I do every day is not political….We are here to transmit information in the middle of a worldwide epidemic,” Sununu said.
West further asked the governor why he and his team are not wearing face masks while in public, but tell everyone else to wear them. Sununu said he does wear a mask when he is not able to socially distance himself and when he goes into public places like grocery stores, noting that some likely don’t recognize him with a mask on.
“We have been quite adamant about masks,” he said. “I am out there wearing the mask,” and he said it was “incredibly important.”
Sununu said he plans to put the money where his mouth is with an aggressive Public Service Announcement campaign over the summer to wear masks.
The governor was asked by Adam Sexton of WMUR if college athletics can come back and Sununu said there is a safe way that that can happen, which will involve how people manage locker rooms, interactions, and practices.
Each conference and the athletic league will have their own rules, he said, but teams need to be cognizant that if they have an outbreak, it might be the end of their season.
“Yeah, it can happen,” he said.
Donna Jordan of the Colebrook Chronicle asked Shibinette whether the state might go door to door to test people.
She said that would be great but would only provide a moment in time and would have to be repeated every seven days to get a good picture.
Shibinette said that the state is working on another strategy, collaborating with hospitals and their partners to take testing back into the health care system, rather than relying solely on all the nine fixed sites right now, mostly operated by the National Guard.
By bringing testing back to community hospitals, it would help them provide and get a better handle on how the virus is transmitting in their community.
A reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio asked the governor to respond to reporting in the Concord Monitor this week that nursing homes received defective PPE. Sununu said this angered him and was on a short list of things that angered him coming out of Washington this week, but he did not elaborate on the list.
He said the state would prefer FEMA send the materials to the state for distribution. Some was sent instead to long-term care centers, and not a lot was defective.
“As soon as we found out, we replaced it out of our stockpile,” Sununu said. The state is now demanding FEMA backfill what the state provided.
Fourth Of July
The state will not have the typical public fireworks displays or parades and gatherings this year due to the pandemic. But Sununu urged people to “be safe” in all that they do and to observe social distancing at gatherings and protect themselves and others.