By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Mask Up, New Hampshire. It’s getting really bad.
After announcing a record 529 new COVID-19 cases and a doubling of hospitalizations in two weeks, New Hampshire has a statewide mask mandate.
The decision was not taken lightly, said Gov. Chris Sununu, who for months has resisted calls for such a mandate and is the only governor in New England who has not already embraced such efforts to control the pandemic.
A returned lockdown, he said, would be “an absolute disaster” which would not allow COVID-19 to go away.
But a mask mandate will ensure the economy can stay open and Sununu said he had no doubt “we can be successful.”
The surprise announcement, which goes into effect Friday came, Sununu said, because of the dramatic increase in cases of COVID-19 statewide in the past two weeks, hospitalization rates which have doubled in that time, and a significant jump in the daily positivity rate.
Health officials announced two more deaths for a total of 506 lost lives and five new outbreaks at long-term care facilities for a total of 11.
The state is also monitoring hospital bed availability.
There is still enough capacity, officials said, but if the state sees again doubling the number of hospitalizations in another two weeks, they might look to closing down elective surgeries, phasing beds to COVID-19 wards and the state may move to stand up temporary hospitals across the state.
Sununu said the new mask mandate does not replace more restrictive mask mandates in some communities, mostly cities.
He noted it will make it easier for businesses that have been calling for it to help avoid confrontations from patrons who refuse to wear masks, making him the fall-guy.
“I have broad shoulders,” Sununu said, noting that he can take the criticism better than an employee at a convenience store. He said he expects pushback, particularly from part of his political base as a Republican, but he stressed this is not a political issue.
“It is simply about data and impact to communities,” Sununu said. “It is not about you. It is about those around you,” he stressed.
Not everyone is happy with the mandate, include some Republicans.
“Sununu claims he is following the data in presenting this new mandate, but that is simply not true,” said Melissa Blasek, executive director of RebuildNH.
“There is no quality research supporting the idea that a mask mandate is effective. Studies specific to COVID-19 have shown the ineffectiveness of masks, as have 60 years of studies surrounding masking to prevent influenza, which is spread in a similar manner to Covid-19,” she said.
There is no enforcement or fines or penalties associated with the mask mandate that he articulated. But he said all matters involving this can be considered by the Attorney General.
In some ways, the statewide surge in statistics and the national numbers combined with the upcoming holiday season made for a perfect storm to change Sununu’s mind on mandating masks.
He said he considered the following factors: The fact that positive case numbers on PCR tests are now between 4 and 5 percent, the number of towns with COVID-19 cases, has gone from 0 in more than 50 percent a short while ago to now more than 75 percent with active cases, the fact that all 10 counties now have “substantial spread” of the virus when considering more than 100 cases per 100,000 people. There are 11 outbreaks in long-term care facilities and the lack of a back-up for workers in long-term care facilities all led to his decision.
The long-term staff shortage is greater than 70 percent at such nursing homes and there is no state without it to back New Hampshire up.
“This really is a crunch nationally,” Sununu said.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, said there are now 4,006 residents with active infection and 98 are hospitalized.
About 400 new infections a day are being recorded, he said, on average with a 4.1 percent daily positivity rate.
“This pandemic virus continues to show widespread and increasing levels of transmission” throughout the state, Chan said. “We know how to prevent spread,” he said and called on the state’s collective effort.
“We need as we said last week, buy-in,” he said, from businesses and individuals to slow and control the spread especially through limiting travel, maintaining social distance, and wearing cloth face masks.
Chan said that since schools opened, they have done an extremely good job of controlling the spread with only 530 students and staff affected at over 240 facilities and only about 17 small clusters reported.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner for the state Department of Public Health announced new outbreaks at long-term care facilities including one at Colonial Poplin nursing home in Freemont with six residents and 2 staff infected, at Maple Leaf Health Care Center in Manchester with 25 residents and 11 staff, Oceanside Center/Genesis in Hampton with 35 residents and 12 staff, Ridgewood Center in Bedford with three residents and two staff and Studley Home in Rochester with 19 residents and two staff.
“We are escalating in our numbers,” she said so there will be a change in testing protocols at these facilities.
There will be $6 million more available for testing and the state is recommending 100 percent of all staff at these facilities be tested on a weekly basis.
Medicaid requires it for counties with 5 percent or more PCR and she said some states are hovering around that number.
The state is offering Binex Now cards for testing, voluntarily to visitors of long-term care facilities.
“It’s an extra layer of protection we hope the facilities will use,” she said, noting guidance on that will be released on Friday.
Main Street Relief
The second round of help for businesses, totaling $95 million is now going out to businesses across the state, Sununu said. He announced awards to 1,900 businesses. About $53 million will be going to first-time applicants who did not apply in the first round and the average award is $50,000.
“It’s not chump change,” Sununu said. The funding through the federal CARES Act will “keep people employed and businesses viable.”
Sununu stressed concern about large family gatherings though he said he is not in a position to cancel the holiday.
“I don’t think anyone is immune,” Sununu said, but those familiar settings are where the spread is happening.
He noted that usually every two years there are inauguration festivities but this year, there will be a socially distanced swearing-in Jan. 7 outside on the State House plaza.
This year there will be fundraising as part of inaugural with no large gala but hopefully, a series of free, family outdoor events in the summer instead, “as we come out of COVID-19 as a way to celebrate and give thanks for the citizens.”
He said hopefully, he will raise “a whole bunch of money” for “a bunch of free, fun outdoor events.”