By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state on Monday denied InDepthNH.org’s Dec. 21, 2020, right-to-know request relative to how many state legislators and staffers contracted COVID-19 after House Speaker Dick Hinch died from the virus two weeks earlier.
“In accordance with NH RSA 141-C:10, we do not release information relating to outbreaks unless there is a compelling public health reason to release information (such as potential community exposure or to control the spread of disease),” wrote Elizabeth Maynard, counsel to the state Department of Health and Human Services in an email.
The denial came the same day a federal judge refused to require Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard to allow a remote option for disabled Democratic members for this week’s sessions Wednesday and Thursday at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford.
House Clerk Paul Smith said there will be 70 seats set up for House members who refuse to wear masks, and 20 seats for people who medically can’t wear masks, along with the rest of the huge space for social distancing so disabled Democrats who are concerned about contracting the virus can feel safe.
There will be an entrance on one side of the building for Democrats and the other side for Republicans, Smith said.
There will be no assigned seating so House members who choose not to wear a face mask won’t have to request special seating as was required in the past and they can remain anonymous.
Packard has promised a safe, socially distanced venue for the sessions.
The denial also came the day after The New York Times published that Hillsborough County where the sessions will be held is one of six in New Hampshire where the risk of getting COVID-19 is “extremely high,” pictured in purple, the worst of five categories. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-risk-map.html?mc_cid=8e756a34c2&mc_eid=3198b8da05
The other five counties with extremely high risk of getting the virus – the only six counties in New England – are Carroll County, Strafford County, Rockingham County, Merrimack County, and Sullivan County. The rest of the state is at very high risk, the newspaper reported.
The state Democratic Party was quick to criticize Gov. Chris Sununu because of the New York Times report and other news Reports that show Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have all moved ahead of New Hampshire in the percentage of people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
A news release from the state Democratic Party said: “The inability to contain COVID-19 in New Hampshire can be traced back to Governor Sununu’s failure to mitigate the public health crisis. Sununu was the last governor in New England to issue a mask order, he vetoed a bipartisan bill that could have protected residents and staff at the New Hampshire Veterans Home, and Sununu ignored warnings from immunization and public health leaders and instead was one of only nine governors to sign up for the Trump administration’s failed vaccine registration program which left Granite Staters unable to register for their second COVID vaccine.”
Sununu didn’t respond to a request for comment.
InDepthNH.org filed the right-to-know request two months ago after several events in which a number of Republican House members failed to wear masks or socially distance, first at a caucus November 20, 2020, where some members had COVID-19.
The lawsuit filed by disabled Democrats said the Republican caucus failed to inform its Democratic colleagues of the danger “by this mass exposure when the full House held session on December 2, 2020.”
House Speaker Hinch died from COVID-19 on Dec. 9, 2020. A special testing was later conducted for legislators and staffers after prompting by House Minority Leader Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, but Sununu refused to say how many tested positive.