By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu announced that the federal $300 a week unemployment fund since Aug. 1 is “effectively tapped out” impacting more than 42,000 residents.
At his news conference Thursday, Sununu urged Congress to “do its job” and provide for more funding for the unemployed, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow along with more testing.
There were 56 new cases and one new death reported Thursday, that of an elderly woman from Hillsborough County who lived in a long-term care facility. And it was confirmed that three Nashua City Hall employees have tested positive.
Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess told reporters earlier in the day that he has the virus. Sununu also announced plans to use more federal CARES Act funding to benefit businesses, non-profits, health care, education, and long-term care facilities.
The press conference also covered a range of issues with some related to the reopening of schools, both K-12 and colleges, accountability for students with special ed needs, and for those whom English is a second language.
He touted a good September primary day Tuesday in which a record number of citizens – almost 300,000 – got out to vote, and said it helps to build confidence going into the November general election.
$7 Million to Virtual Charter School
Sununu said only about nine of almost 70 school districts in the state are starting virtually, using only remote learning, and the majority are going to in-person or a hybrid version as the school year begins.
A consequence of going entirely remote has some families looking for other public school options, he said.
Sununu said the Virtual Learning Academy of the state or ” VLAC” is a public charter school and a lot have been taking course credits through it since 2007.
He said enrollment requests for VLAC have almost tripled and while there are about 3,000 enrolled, thousands more are on waiting lists. Sununu announced transferring $7 million in federal CARES Act funds to support the expansion of the system to allow for more capacity mostly by paying for more teachers.
He said the state is now facing a capacity demand issue with those charter schools. “We are looking at ways to make more investment,” in charter schools, he said, without providing specifics.
InDepthNH.org sought comment from NEA-NH president Megan Tuttle during the news conference. She said: “I am just hearing this for first time – initial thought is that $7 million could help out traditional public schools in so many ways right now.”
Sununu urged parents of students with special needs who may have an individual education plan and those who are students learning English as a second language to give the state Department of Education a call to help work with the schools on accountability for remote learning and other needs.
Many people last spring complained that the students in these categories were falling through the cracks due to the remote learning scenario. He said there would be more of an effort to provide adequate education and those with concerns should call 271-3196 “to hopefully meet all those needs.”
There would be accountability, he said, to ensure all learn this fall.
Sununu created a $30 million fund, among more than 20, to use some of the $1.25 billion CARES Act funding for the state for businesses and nonprofits that did not receive Main Street funding grants. While hundreds of millions of dollars went out to address losses due to the pandemic, some were rejected because of eligibility requirements.
On Thursday he announced that 300 businesses and nonprofits are being awarded about $20 million in assistance, averaging about $64,000, to cover COVID-19 expenses and lost revenues due to the pandemic.
“We think this a great opportunity to put CARES Act money into the communities,” Sununu said and thanked the state Business Finance Authority for working with the applicants to get the money out the door.
Long-term care facilities will get an additional $10 million in addition to the $ 12 million already announced, for 42 different facilities to help cover COVID-19 expenses and lost revenues.
Health-care relief was also announced. Sununu said another $13 million will go to 300 different health-care providers across the state for the same relief.
Sununu said there is still $250 million in unallocated funds from the CARES Act which must be spent by the end of the calendar year. He said he expects the COVID-19 numbers will go up and there will be more need for those funds and the state continues to build a stock of personal protective equipment.
The state formerly had about 2,200 people tested each day but now it can be 4,000 or 5,000 tests per day due to college testing.
These tests are catching clearly a lot more asymptomatic people and so the percent of positive cases is going up from under one percent to now about 1.5 percent, officials said.
Sununu said those are still acceptable percentages but he may become worried if that goes up to 5 percent.
Another big metric is hospital capacity and there is plenty of that with only seven COVID-19 patients in hospitals today.
The number of COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care facilities dropped from more than 20 to just one facility, according to Lori Shibinette, state Health, and Human Services commissioner. It remains at the Mountain View in Ossipee where currently a total of three residents and five staff have COVID-19. There is also an outbreak of more than three cases at the Rockingham County House of Correction.
But in both cases, there have been no new recent cases and there are just a few days left in a 14-day period and the outbreak may be lifted next week, she said. Visitation and allowing for non-essential workers to visit long-term care facilities is on a three-tier system and predicated on county statistics where there are 10 or more cases per 100,000 people.
Every two weeks the data is evaluated and as of Thursday, nursing homes in three counties are at the least restrictive – phase three-level, with the exception of the Ossipee facility, Shibinette said.
Those counties are Belknap, Sullivan, and Coos County where the lease restrictive visitation rules now exist. Unfortunately, due to the community spread of the virus, Grafton County has dropped from tier 3 to tier 2, said Shibinette.
Sullivan County moved up from tier 2 to tier 3.
Since the state launched its new school COVID-19 dashboard a few weeks ago, Shibinette said there are lots of questions about disparities in numbers. Schools report different numbers than the state.
That has to do with a lag in reporting on the state’s part due to contact tracing and ensuring that anyone who may have been exposed hears first from public health officials rather than from the press, she said.
“We want to make sure everyone who has been exposed has been notified prior to us reporting it publicly,” Shibinette said.
She said the criteria the state also uses is “in-school learning,” and noted that some colleges may be recording on their dashboards information about students who are not at school yet. She said the lag can be a day or two.
Sununu said that the federal Lost Wages Assistance Program that has provided about $81 million to the unemployed in New Hampshire since the $600 a week federal stipend ended August 1 is effectively out of money. He asked that Congress provide that gap funding now.
President Donald Trump created the program which since Aug. 1 has provided a $300 a week stipend and hoped it would go through the end of the year with Congress’s help. But it ended through FEMA on Sept. 5 and the bridge is gone as the Senate didn’t approve funding.
New Hampshire was able to tap $81 million for the fund for 57,000, said Sununu. New Hampshire was the first state in New England to have the program system up and running and has been approached by others on how they did it so fast, Sununu said.
Unemployment numbers continue to drop and now there are 42,000 without work, compared to 120,000 at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak.