By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – As the state reported 310 new cases of COVID-19 in the state, and children and their families prepare for a return to school in the next few weeks, Gov. Chris Sununu pushed the need to get everyone who can to be fully vaccinated, warning that the fall could be a tough new chapter of the pandemic when people head indoors.
A potential fall spike “could be as bad as anything we have seen before,” the governor said.
Officials noted that 39 percent of DNA sequenced cases in the past week have been identified as the highly transmissible Delta variant as the strain of the virus.
“We are seeing a lot of movement in the pandemic nationally and locally and with school coming up time to get back to discuss the situation,” Sununu said in returning to the podium for a press conference update, Thursday.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, said the trend of new cases is moving upward in most of the regions of the state and that as kids should and do go back to school this fall, the decisions made on masking and other measures should and will be made at the local level.
The jump in cases Thursday was profound.
In the last week, the state was averaging about 170 cases a day. If Thursday’s numbers hold for the next week, that would be a doubling of the number of new cases.
The test positivity rate, now at 4.5 percent, is on the increase and hospitalizations are also going up with 58 in the state Thursday, Chan said.
He also reported a new death of an individual who was at a long-term care facility, bringing the total to 1,394 deaths in the state from the coronavirus.
There are now three new outbreaks at long-term care facilities including the Epsom Health Center, the federal prison in Berlin, and at Rockingham County Nursing home.
Lori Shibinette, the state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner, said cases in nursing homes have slowed dramatically. She called it “great progress” in long-term care, controlling the virus, due in large part to vaccinations, and noted that vaccinating the homebound has added 5,260 to the ranks of the vaccinated with one person still on the schedule to roll up their sleeves as the van rolls up.
Dr. Beth Daly, head of infectious diseases for DHHS, said 1.5 million doses of the vaccine have been administered including 822,000 individuals receiving at least one dose and 752,000 being fully vaccinated. While the number of daily vaccination is slowing, about 1,000 residents are still getting people to become vaccinated.
Daly said there are still plenty of vaccines available at over 500 outlets across the state, including pharmacies, hospitals, and a mobile van.
The state is getting a second van and has 75 or more clinics planned through September. To schedule a van visit vaccines.nh.gov.
The governor said the mobile van is great and “every vaccine we give is one step closer” to get the state out of the pandemic.
SCHOOL YEAR BEGINS SOON, VACCINATE IS THE MESSAGE
The state will be focusing on getting the willing to vaccinate as schools open and convincing the unvaccinated that this is the path to the future.
“The vaccine is the way out,” Sununu said.
“I know there is some hesitancy out there,” the governor acknowledged, but he urged people to talk to their health care providers.
Sununu noted every state is different and when seeing people lying in hospital beds on television from Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, regretting that they could have avoided the illness and potential death by getting the shot, he said he hoped that would be a message which resonates among those in the state – about 30 percent of those eligible – who have not gotten their shots.
The governor said there is a need for flexibility in schools as each school is different and faces different threats from the virus.
He said parents and school leaders will have the best tool at the local control level.
Remote learning was problematic, he said, noting most children in the state faced at least some remote learning challenges last year.
“It just wasn’t the best thing. The best thing is to get the kids back in the classroom,” Sununu said, adding, “It might not work as well with masks, but the kids will just have to adjust.”
Sununu gave an example of why decisions should be made at the local level rather than by county and regional transmission rates.
He noted Coos County has a 14 percent positivity rate but mostly that is because of an outbreak in the federal Berlin prison.
“Should Littleton schools be impacted by that?” he questioned.
Chan said the state health officials have always started from a standpoint that kids need to go back to school.
“As a parent, as a community as a society,” he said the consensus is that we all recognize that we need to return to in-person learning.
“So how to we minimize risks? As we talked all through the pandemic this is a balancing act,” he said, adding there are multiple layers of protection from masking to social distancing to others.
But first and foremost, Sununu said, is vaccinations for those who are old enough.
NO GOING BACK TO MASK MANDATES
While Chan announced recommendations for universal masking in schools on a call with officials Wednesday, on Thursday Sununu stressed New Hampshire state government is not requiring any measures as kids head back to school. The governor said that the state of emergency has ended in New Hampshire and it was in place when people had few tools.
There were staffing shortages, few materials such as masks and PPE, and there was a need to protect the public with such mandates. That led to people having to stay home, schools and business closings, and a lot of upheaval.
“Right now, individuals have every means of control by getting that vaccine, age 12 and up,” he said. “It is in their control to do that.
Going back to a state of emergency might be possible if the hospital system became overwhelmed, he said.
Looking at other states, including ones in New England that have higher percentages of people vaccinated, the governor said “I am not frustrated with where the state is.”
Chan said still a majority of the new cases are among unvaccinated people.
FEDERAL FUNDS TO HELP TESTING IN SCHOOLS
Shibinette said schools will be offered testing help and that will be paid for with federal funds including those for asymptomatic screening for COVID-19.
But she said there are various considerations.
The governor said he is aware of what demand for the testing will be.
“I think every dollar should be super flexible,” he said.
VACCINES ARE THE SOLUTION
The governor stressed the bottom line was not about whether masks are required in businesses or schools or public settings.
“If you are thinking this is about the mask or no mask, you are missing the boat,” he said. “VACCINE, VACCINE, VACCINE. Masks are not the solution. Vaccines are.”