By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Starting this Saturday, restaurants will ask patrons for contact information as the state continues to see an uptick in cases of COVID-19.
Announcing four new deaths and 131 new cases at Thursday’s news conference, State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan said the information that is collected by restaurants will allow contact tracers to get information quickly to possibly exposed individuals and gain a leg up on the virus, potentially protecting others from contracting it.
Gov. Chris Sununu said the idea came from the restaurant industry and he applauded their efforts to begin helping the state with data collection.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the problem contact tracers have in 40 percent of their initial calls is having people pick up the phone. But once they do, she said they find them quite cooperative providing information on individuals they have had recent contact with who may have also been exposed to the virus.
Shibinette said there were no new outbreaks at long-term care facilities to report but that three remain at Bedford Hills, Pine Rock Manor in Warner, and St. Theresa’s nursing home.
While the state has the fourth-lowest positivity rate of transmission of the virus in the country, the state is still seeing an uptick in the number of cases with currently 1,106 infected, an increase in the 14-day average rate which has gone from about 53 to 96 people per 100,000 in a matter of three weeks.
Still, the percent positivity rate remains low and no new hospitalizations were reported, officials said.
All four of the deaths reported Thursday from COVID-19 were residents of long-term care facilities, bringing the death toll to 482 individuals since March in New Hampshire.
First Responder Testing
Coming in the next few weeks is a screening program for first responders.
Shibinette said she met with leaders of that community who are excited about getting screening and the program will be called FROST, an acronym for first responder optional screening program.
It will be coordinated through the state EMS bureau and Homeland Security. EMS organizations in each community will be able to have monthly testing.
Using the BINEX rapid testing cards, it will start at the tate fire academy and police academy and then will be sent out to all first responders in the coming weeks.
In addition to FROST, the testing devices which are at a number of public testing centers, the VNA and homecare professionals will get them this week to test those who are disabled or homebound and will be distributed to New Hampshire Hospital as well, and to county jails.
Dr. Chan said the restaurants and the state health officials have been working on the idea for a log of data on customers for several weeks and he said it would be an improvement to help deal with outbreaks.
“This is a welcome change,” he said. It will eliminate the need for some press releases about restaurants because the state could not ensure that all who may have been exposed at a restaurant knew of their exposure.
Sununu said the state could still provide information to the public on outbreaks. Chan said each situation is different and sometimes it takes a bit of time to get the needed contact tracing information.
“So if there is a need for public notification we will do so,” he said.
He said he was pleased that the restaurants are taking a proactive step “so it is really a partnership. each situation will dictate a different response.”
He added that the department is hearing more concerns to their hotlines “absolutely” related to possible exposure at restaurants.
The federal government sent the state 300,000 more masks and Sununu said 200,000 were sent to schools this week to maintain school safety.
Sununu was asked if a mask mandate is off the table and he said no, and if things get worse it might be an option to be done on a regional basis.
“Right now, we are just not there,” Sununu said.
6.5M School Meals
Serving meals at schools is vital, Sununu said, and that has been complicated by the virus, the summer recess, and remote and hybrid learning.
Still, he said the state Department of Education has met the challenge and helped provide over 6.5 million meals served and 4.2 million of them free since March.
Main Street 2.0
The application period for businesses interested in another round of $100 million in federal relief closes Friday.
The governor said 3,600 have already applied. It will be a week to sort through and double-check eligibility and then an allocation will be done “agnostically” and across the board.
Attorney General Gordon MacDonald attended the press conference and noted that elections are on the minds of his staff as voting day approaches next Tuesday.
Sununu, who is on the ballot along with everyone at the State House, said he can’t wait until it’s over and said he expected results for state offices to come in Tuesday night.
He said New Hampshire has the best voting system in the country and he urged all to vote. Even those who are not registered can still go to the polls and vote Tuesday.
Those with health concerns will be accommodated, he said, and the pandemic should not prevent people from casting their ballot.
He said people can go to the polls with a gun. If they refuse to wear a mask there are accommodations as well.
For any concerns, intimidation, harassment, questions, the election hotline is 1-866-868-3703 or email@example.com.
Sununu said he would appreciate people wearing masks and being patient.
“No one will be turned away and every vote will be counted,” he said.
Sununu was asked if there were additional CARES Act funds to help owners of tourist attractions who told U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen Wednesday that they face “dire” circumstances for their businesses and staff if there is not more stimulus funding.
Sununu said New Hampshire has given more CARES Act funds to businesses than any other state and the problem for those businesses is because Congress failed to do anything to help either add new funds or extend the use deadline past Dec. 30.
“I am concerned for them as well,” Sununu said, but he said the problem was people like Shaheen who turned down billions of dollars the Republicans offered as an additional stimulus because they said it was not enough.
“I don’t know if any of them deserve to come back,” and be reelected, he said.
The pandemic will extend well beyond the end of the year, he said, and the issue is going to get more and more severe.
With a “lame-duck session” after the election, “I don’t have a lot of faith,” that anything will get done, Sununu said.
Hockey returns Friday and Sununu said the new guidance is good and designed to be successful so long as it is followed.
Everyone has to get tested and that is it, he said. The response has been fairly positive, he said, noting he has had parents say “thank you” for halting the season for a few weeks after at least 167 COVID-19 cases in the state were linked to hockey. Some parents were feeling pressured to continue to have their kids play.
The COVID test is mandatory, either by PCR or antigen, Sununu stressed, but he did give them until Nov. 6, an extra week to get tested. Chan said when people register to get tested the state doesn’t ask why, but if there if they are positive, we are asking if they are associated with ice arenas.
Thanksgiving and Halloween
With seven brothers and sisters, Sununu said his family often gets together for Thanksgiving but this year, each family is doing their own thing and keeping apart due to the pandemic. He said there is no need to take that risk and that it is a small sacrifice to keep people like his 81-year-old parents healthy.
He noted that he is pretty organized and went “all-out” for Halloween, though, and has not chosen a costume yet but has the chocolate and non-chocolate candy ready to send through a chute. He built a little graveyard in his yard to decorate for the holiday.
“I don’t know, Mink the bear or Frankie the fox,” for a costume choice.
He said it has been a stressful couple of weeks but he found fun with power tools and got some lights and he is getting into the Halloween spirit.
Sununu said people are being very innovative and you can do it safely in this year of COVID-19.
For those who don’t want to go out or interact they can stay home and keep their outside lights off.