By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – New Hampshire passed the 200th day since Gov. Chris Sununu’s first emergency declaration due to COVID-19 Thursday with state health officials saying the state has “plateaued” like much of the country in terms of new cases.
The state recorded 52 new cases and two new deaths Thursday at Sununu’s news conference and reported two new outbreaks at long-term care facilities in southern New Hampshire, including one at Bedford Hills nursing home where 47 patients and staff have just tested positive for the virus.
But of the 192,000 kids in schools there are only 60 cases and signs after a month in school that other schools which are not now open, may feel comfort in attempting such steps, Sununu said.
In reflecting where we have been and where we need to go to get through this pandemic, Sununu said widely available vaccines for the virus may be something to look forward to having here next spring or summer, and he expects the number of cases to go up.
“I feel the end is in sight,” said Sununu, adding that as in a train tunnel, you can see the light at the end of it but you are not sure how far it really is.
He said he feels the next 200 days will be better than the past 200 days.
“All the tools are there to be successful and there is an end in sight,” Sununu said. But he said he is far from saying “mission accomplished.”
Dr. Beth Daly of the Department of Public Health noted that there have been to date 34 million cases globally, 7.2 million in the United States alone, with more than 207,000 deaths here, while New Hampshire has fared relatively well.
Daly said the country has mainly plateaued with 40,000 new cases a day and while New Hampshire’s daily numbers have slightly increased from a month or so ago, the state has “plateaued too.”
The 52 new cases reported on Thursday now means 8,317 residents have had the virus. There were no new hospitalizations to report, for a total of 738 since March, but two new deaths at long-term care centers have led to a new total of 441 fatalities.
While the state has reached out through contact tracing to 30,000 people who may have been exposed to the virus, and while most have been completely cooperative, Daly noted that some, however, are upset when they get a call because they may have to quarantine and she said it seems that some have become a bit wary of talking with health officials about exposure.
Daly said that is understandable because it impacts those who have to stay home to protect everyone else from the virus and that can be for more than two weeks. She said when they get the call, they are “presented with very significant challenges. So, what we are asking those is that we need to work together to keep our schools and economy open,” she said. “We need the public to do their part to answer our calls.”
After months of having few clusters at long-term care facilities where the elderly have been most impacted by the virus, the state has continued to have an open case at Mountain View nursing home in Ossipee and two new outbreaks in the south.
Bedford Hills Center has 33 residents and 14 staff testing positive for a total of 47. Warde Health Center in Windham has three residents and one staff for a total of four cases. Prior to last week, the number of cases at Bedford Hills was zero.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said in 10 days they went to 47 showing how quickly COVID-19 moves through such a facility. She said Bedford Hills participated in a surveillance testing program and has tested all their staff and residents. She said it is “quite remarkable how quickly that moved” and she called it “very concerning” with residents and staff both asymptomatic and symptomatic.
“As community transmission increases, that increases the risk for it getting into nursing homes,” Shibinette said. She said the outbreak in Windham may get wore as it is “very early in that outbreak.”
Good News Testing
The commissioner said there is some good news on increasing the number of tests that can be provided now that the state has received rapid testing materials for about 25 community testing sites which will allow for as many as 400,000 new tests to be administered by the end of the year.
The state is launching a new testing dashboard that will go live today. She said it is interactive and will have testing by community, by county and also a separate link for UNH, which is reporting out separately right now but should be automated into the dashboard next week.
Additionally, Shibinette said the state will see more antigen-based testing coming because of new testing equipment that will be deployed at nursing homes and other facilities. Prior to today, antigen-based machines have been considered “probable” for positives and outcomes have been backed up with PCR testing before they are registered in the state’s testing data as positive.
From here on, the state is going to consider those antigen positives as pure positives and it will be counted and treated as such in state counting.
School children and their families will have quick and easy access to more testing because of the new rapid tests being distributed now and that will help reduce disruption caused by a sick child at home.
Sununu said that will help inform future decisions on keeping schools open or closing them due to an outbreak.
“Hopefully they will use that data to move into a hybrid or in-person model as many people want to have that,” he said.
Sununu said the BINEX testing will allow for 25,000 tests per week. It takes 15 minutes to get a result, is a very noninvasive test and for symptomatic people.
“I think it will be an awesome game-changer,” Sununu said.
Sununu addressed comments made by President Donald Trump, whom he said he still supports for re-election, during a debate in which Trump failed to repudiate white supremacists and told one group of them to “stand by.”
Sununu called the comments wrong and said in the past his office has heard “negative comments made to me and my office and actually it went a little beyond that” from white hate groups.
He noted there are such groups working in the state and they are being monitored by law enforcement. Sununu said he has heard the groups after the massacre in Charlottesville, Virginia, several years ago, and also after he created a commission to look at law enforcement practices following the death of George Floyd.
“You cannot equivocate those fighting for racial justice with white supremacists,” Sununu said, noting there is “no place for that thought process” in this state or the country.
He said he is sure white supremacists don’t like that he has embraced all 48 suggestions for change from that commission. Sununu said he didn’t watch Trump’s comment because he shut the television off and told his 14-year-old who was watching with him that “this is not the way debates should go.”
Trump, he said, “definitely fell short,” but he still supports Trump in his bid for re-election.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley released the following statement in response to the governor’s comments.
“Chris Sununu, a self-described ‘Trump guy through and through,’ showed us today that he will stand by Donald Trump no matter how low, how disgraceful, how racist, or how disgusting his views, his politics, and his policies go. Chris Sununu doesn’t deserve any credit for saying he opposes fire when he is cheering on an arsonist with a blowtorch. Chris Sununu has brought Trump’s hateful agenda to New Hampshire and has excused racism within his own party at every turn – and it’s why Granite Staters will show them both the door on November 3rd.”
There was a reminder offered to farmers that they can still access COVID-19 financial relief until Oct. 15 at goferr.nh.gov/apply for non-dairy farms.
Sununu announced $1.5 million for student enrichment programs like the robotics program FIRST and Girls At Work, which provide life skills.
The governor said it picks up on similar programs through the summer for enrichment, like support for kids’ programs at the YMCA and Boys Clubs.
This will allow for kids to have access to programs that help with problem-solving skills, technical skills, and personal development. First Robotics, an enrichment program founded in New Hampshire by inventor Dean Kamen, who has traveled with the governor and provided PPE shipments through his contacts, is another example of a program in which the funds could be used for.
He said every school that wants a First Robotics team will have one paid for by the CARES Act funds. Those who want access to the funds can go to Firstnh.gov.
Funding for Hospitals
Hospitals throughout the state said this week they are financially struggling to keep their doors open and expect that the industry will be facing at $300 million deficit by the end of the year. Sununu said they are going to be taken care of, either through federal money available or through state help, but he does not want them to go to the banks for a loan.
The bottom line, he said, is they are about 5 percent in the red.
“It is not so bad that folks are closing,” he said. “There is a small shortfall,” but he said it is manageable.
But Sununu said he did not want them to go get loans.
“I don’t want to force them to overleverage themselves,” Sununu said, but funding will be “targeted” to those in the most need.