By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – New Hampshire’s Executive Council approved a contract to allow troubled Vermont youths to reside at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, got an update on drug deaths during COVID-19 and the number of vaccines expected, discussed the virus outbreak at the Veterans Home, and approved funding to advance work on the Exit 4A project on Interstate 93 in Londonderry and Derry.
It was the last-ever meeting of this Democratically controlled Executive Council, held Friday with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu bidding farewell to outgoing councilors.
A new Republican-controlled Council will be sworn in along with Sununu for a third term on Jan. 6 in a ceremony to be held on the State House lawn. The only returning Councilor will be Manchester’s Ted Gatsas, a Republican. Two incumbent Democrats were beaten by Republicans on Nov. 3. Two others did not run for another term.
The last meeting was held in-person and offered virtually by phone from the State House in Concord. It was the first time since the pandemic closed the State House for meeting together in the Council chambers. Outgoing Democratic Councilors Debora Pignatelli and Andru Volinsky attended by phone. InDepthNH.org reported the meeting by phone.
The Council will have two previous members returning to the table for the next two years. Republican Joseph Kenney of Wakefield, who took the seat of the late Executive Councilor Ray Burton, who died in 2013, and was defeated two years ago by Democrat Michael Cryans of Hanover, won in a fifth rematch for the District 1 seat.
Kenney will again represent residents in the top northern half of the state of New Hampshire. District 2, the Concord area, had been held by Democrat Andru Volinsky of Concord who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the Democratic primary.
Volinsky’s seat now goes to Cinde Warmington of Concord, a fellow Democrat. She will be the only Democrat on the Council for the next two years. District 3 was won by Janet Stevens, a Rye Republican, who beat Mindi Messmer for the seat held by Republican Russell Prescott of Kingston. He decided against running for another term, citing interests in spending more time with his family and business.
District 4 stays with Gatsas, the Republican who beat Democrat Mark MacKenzie. District 5 sees the return of Republican Dave Wheeler of Milford, who beat Democrat Debora Pignatelli of Nashua in a very close race. Also like Cryans and Kenney, these two had another rematch with the seat flipping.
There were no nominations to state boards or department heads made by Sununu on Friday because it would carry over to the next Council.
Cryans said serving on state boards is a great opportunity to meet people one would not otherwise meet and it is a wonderful way to “give back.” Sununu agreed.
Cryans said while he will not preclude a future run, he said being on the Executive Council has been a “true joy.” He said he sees the good work of the state employees that many never see. He thanked his fellow Councilors and the governor for their work.
Sununu said the Council never wavered and stayed on top of things regardless of the pandemic, meeting virtually about every two weeks and providing a visible display of the state’s continued operations, while the legislature was primarily in recess. The governor said he does not often make promises, but he promised that the year 2021 will be better than 2020.
New Reps Sworn in
While 270 state representatives were sworn in on Dec. 2 at an outdoor ceremony at the University of New Hampshire, others were sworn in at a recent virtual meeting. More were sworn in virtually on Friday. Sworn in by phone by Sununu were new state Representatives Eric Gallagher, Joe Guthrie, Ellen Read, Joe Sweeney, and Kenneth Vincent.
Councilor Pignatelli asked whether the state would be getting the number of COVID-19 doses from Pfizer that they had hoped for, noting she heard Massachusetts would not be receiving as many. Sununu said all states were getting a reduced share on a pro-rata basis.
He said Pfizer delivered on the 12,000 initial doses which were as expected with about 8,000 designed for direction to long-term care facilities and about 4,000 to hospitals and front-line workers. He said next week the state expects to get about 75 percent of what it originally thought it would get for a second week and that is just shy of 9,000 doses.
Sununu said he was told it is a matter of production and supply, but Pignatelli said she thought it had more to do with the federal government, that supply was not the issue. Sununu said with the vaccines “we are 100 percent at the whim of the federal government.”
It is hoped that the Moderna vaccines will be approved and the state could see 24,000 doses next week, with about half going to fixed sites for first responders, and then others dedicated to long-term care residents and staff. CVS and Walgreens drug stores will be in charge of that distribution.
Veterans Home Update
Pignatelli asked about the Veterans Home in Tilton, which has been hard hit by the virus with at least 35 residents dying of COVID-19.
Sununu said the residents and staff there have not yet been vaccinated but are among the first in line for the vaccines.
He said the only delay is paperwork related to consent forms which have to come back from family members. Pignatelli asked for continuous updates.
“Until I am done on Jan. 3, I would like updates” daily on the situation at the Veterans Home, Pignatelli told Sununu.
Pignatelli said some in the state are calling for an independent review of what occurred at the Tilton home and she asked the governor if he was planning to appoint someone. He said there are a few paths that could be taken and noted that federal assessment teams came to help.
But he said in the middle of the outbreak, “we don’t want to pull staff out” to do the investigation right now.
Sununu said like most facilities in the state, it is likely that asymptomatic people transmitted the virus, and once inside a long-term care facility “it spreads like wildfire.”
“We will continue to stay right on it,” Sununu said, not only in Tilton but other locations where the situation is severe and deadly.
About 81 percent of all the deaths from COVID-19 that the state has suffered have occurred among residents of long-term care facilities. Sununu said it looks like a number of active cases continue to drop at the Veterans Home, but it will likely be a few more weeks before it is taken off the state list of outbreaks.
Pignatelli saluted the staff and said she would like to see the state come through with a better understanding of what occurred there, to prevent future tragedy.
Cryans asked for an overview of the state’s opioid and other drug crises since the pandemic. Katje Fox of the Department of Health and Human Services, said prior to the pandemic, the state’s goal to reduce drug deaths by 15 percent over two years was almost met but since COVID-19, rather than see a continued decline “we have seen it stagnate.” Overdoses are up, Fox said, while the deaths remain steady.
She said the department believes that is because of the wide distribution and access to naloxone, a life-saving drug, with other people being around to administer it to those who have overdosed. What is startling is a significant drop in people accessing help through the state Doorways program.
She said there were 300 fewer accessing the Doorway from October to November who chose not to access services. Overall, Fox said, “We seem to be holding our own but that is not good enough. We have to keep working really hard….especially during a pandemic.”
The Council approved a tabled, $6.5 million contract to house up to six Vermont youths at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester.
Joe Ripson of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, said it is a temporary arrangement while Vermont waits for the opening of their own facility in about a year and a half.
It was tabled previously at the request of Councilor Volinsky to allow for some discussion on local, initial concerns, but Ripson said he met Tuesday with Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and they were on board with the plan.
He said services will be integrated with existing youth at the center and that they will be returned to their home settings and not released to Manchester. Ripson said it was his understanding that Craig’s initial concerns were adequately addressed.
Exit 4A Project
To move the I-93 exit area project along, the Council approved three stipend payments to three design/build teams for the Exit 4A project in Derry and Londonderry. The Council was told by state transportation officials that with the payment of $375,000, the state will be able to own those designs and use them going forward in developing the important traffic project.
The three teams receiving $125,000 each are Middlesex Corporation, R.S. Audley, and SPS New England. Gatsas said there are a few communities in southern New Hampshire very concerned about the project and making sure it moves forward in a timely manner and they have millions of dollars on the line. The state was anticipating the project would cost $50 million but bids came in at $90 million.
Pardon for Casey
Kristopher Casey, 38, requested a pardon for offenses related to property crimes, including arson, for which he was not eligible for annulment. A hearing was held by the Council previously. A roll call vote was unanimous with Gatsas abstaining.