By PAULA TRACY
and CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill into law Tuesday that expands and permanently ensures that health care providers can bill insurance companies for visits by phone and internet at the same rate they would if the patient came to their office.
Telemedicine, as it is known, has become very useful in the pandemic the past four months, Sununu said at his regular news conference on Tuesday.
He also said expect it to take longer to get a COVID-19 test result than it has in the past. State health officials said what has been an average of a three-day wait for testing will now take about seven days due in part to a national surge in testing requests.
Sununu said he thinks the amount of time will continue to be longer than it has in the past as people prepare to go back to schools this fall.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said just a few weeks ago, it took about three days to get results and now the wait is between six and seven days.
Shibinette said the state is looking to validate “pool testing” or doing a batch of tests together in an effort to get more testing done quickly and add capacity to the state’s testing system. She said the state lab has the capacity to test about 300 people daily but uses third party vendors to handle the bulk of public testing.
The state, on average has about 1,800 tests done per day. The state lab has a turnaround time of 1.6 days, she said.
“My sense is there will be continued high demand because of schools reopening,” Sununu said.
Shibinette said long-term care facilities are tested every five to seven days. These are the locations where the most fatalities have been encountered in the state, with COVID-19 now having claimed the lives of 400 people in New Hampshire.
On Tuesday, the state reported two new deaths and 16 new cases. Roughly 80 percent of those 400 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities.
Evergreen Place in Manchester, an assisted living facility, has joined a list of four facilities that have suffered an outbreak of three or more cases. The state announced that 17 residents there tested positive and three staff for a total of 20.
One thing that might help is that some institutions, such as the University of New Hampshire, are trying to get their own devices to do their own testing to help manage test turnaround time.
Sununu announced an elevated messaging campaign to wear a mask and act responsibility, Tuesday related to the virus with a campaign on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
He also announced that on Tuesday, he and inventor Dean Kamen welcomed another flight full of personal protective equipment to the state.
“We do have more flights coming in. We have done very well with PPE here,” Sununu said. “We have been very good about building up our stockpiles.”
The state is acting as a pass-through for the materials with federal funds paying for the materials which are sold at cost in many cases.
Dr. Ben Chan, the state’s epidemiologist, said the state continues to have good numbers on COVID-19 despite the fact that much of the country is facing a surge.
Now, there are more than 14.7 million cases of the virus globally, 3.8 million in the U.S. and 140,000 citizens have died and numbers continue to rise.
The state now has had 6,262 confirmed cases and Tuesday, four new hospitalizations for a total of 677 people.
The two new deaths, both associated with residents of long-term care facilities, sent the state total to 400 people.
The GAP program, administered through the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority is now available. It has $30 million to spend and the application process is now open for those who did not qualify for the Main Street relief program.
You can apply by going to GOFERR.NH.gov.
A second fund for the self-employed, similar to the Main Street Program, called the SELF Fund has seen 8,500 applications that are now under review by the Department of Revenue Administration. Sununu estimates checks could go out at the end of this week or early next week.
While Maine tracks out-of-state visitor testing and publishes that information, New Hampshire does not, but InDepthNH.org requested that such data metric be made available. Shibinette said the state does get tests taken in New Hampshire from out-of-state residents but largely sends it back to the state from which the person resides.
“We don’t regularly report out those numbers,” she said. “I can look at data tables,” and see if that is easily released to the public, she said, noting that testing has not shown a large bump in cases in tourist areas such as the Lakes Region and the North Country.
Shibinette said in round numbers the state has 225 long-term care facilities of which 75 are nursing homes. The remainder are assisted living facilities.
While the state does announce outbreaks in those facilities of COVID-19, they do not have a list of outbreaks outside of those facilities.
She said over the course of the virus there have been a handful of businesses or other settings, but the state does not disclose those unless there is a public interaction with that location, “if there is a community risk.”
Some school officials are voicing concern there is not enough federal money to open schools safely but the governor assured the public.
“Dollars are going to be there,” Sununu said.
Sununu said there is no plan for added hazard duty pay for substitute teachers and he acknowledged that some teachers may choose early retirement. He said his message to school administrators is to start developing a really long list of substitute teachers and school bus drivers and workers who could have to replace teachers.
“Be cognizant and have a good and healthy list,” of additional help, he said.
Chan said he has been talking with school nurses on how to handle outbreaks and will continue to communicate with school officials.