By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state’s epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan said he still advocates for residents to wear a face mask in public when they can’t socially distance, but another public health expert disagrees with Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to end the statewide mask mandate this soon.
Before leaving last week for vacation, Chan and other state health officials consulted with Sununu about his decision to drop the statewide mask mandate, officials said. In an email to InDepthNH.org Monday, Chan said, “the lifting of the mandate does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask.”
Rich DiPentima, the former chief of the state communicable diseases epidemiology, said he sent Chan an email pleading with him to intervene with Sununu, but wasn’t sure he received it. DiPentima said there is a very effective life-saving treatment for high-risk individuals who get COVID-19 that he worries is under-utilized in New Hampshire.
“It’s too soon,” DiPentima said. “We just need another month or two to not have more community spread, to get this behind us. Keep the mask ordinance for another month.”
DiPentima expressed concern in his email to Chan that New Hampshire is still seeing between 300 and 500 cases of COVID-19 per day and deaths averaging between 2 and 4 per day for the past month.
“If appropriate monoclonal antibody treatment is initiated quickly upon a high-risk person receiving a positive COVID-19 test, almost all hospitalizations and deaths of these people could be prevented,” DiPentima said.
“I am concerned that people are not aware that this treatment is readily available in New Hampshire, and that many people are delaying care far too long, often after symptoms are severe and they require hospitalization, which is far too late to benefit from this treatment. Many physicians may also not be aware of the availability of this treatment.”
DiPentima said preventing deaths alone is not the only reason for maintaining COVID-19 prevention strategies while working to get a larger number of the total population immunized and approach herd immunity.
Morbidity is also a serious problem, he said, resulting in many hospitalizations, stressing the healthcare system, delaying or limiting school openings, allowing for continued community transmission resulting in the increased risk of developing more COVID-19 variants.
“When it is reported that 95 percent of COVID-19 cases have ‘recovered,’ that is not totally accurate,” DiPentima said. “While they may have survived, many are far from full recovery. We know that about 1/3 of all those infected with COVID-19 experience long-term complications, including neurological, pulmonary, cardiac, and others, lasting many months. Many have not returned to their pre COVID-19 infection health status.”
Jake Leon, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Sununu consults with Chan and public health officials in all decision-making related to the virus.
“They have worked hand in hand throughout this pandemic as a close team. The governor’s role is balancing the health and safety of the citizens while also ensuring a robust and open economy. Public Health’s role has been to advocate for public health. The governor has been supportive of Public Health and they stand together in continuing to urge the importance of face masks and removing the statewide mandate does not change that,” Leon said.
He emailed the statement from Chan. “Throughout the pandemic, we have advised people to wear face masks to protect themselves and prevent COVID-19 from spreading, even when there was no mask mandate. The threat to health from COVID-19 is real. Even as restrictions are reduced, we are still in a pandemic, and levels of COVID-19 remain high across the state. Therefore, we ask that people continue to take steps to protect their own health, the health of their family and friends, and the health of their community.”
On Monday, the state reported no new deaths associated with COVID-19, but 133 were hospitalized with the virus and there were 235 new cases to total 3,329 active cases of the virus in the Granite State.
Sununu announced he would let the statewide mask mandate expire last Friday, noting that almost 70 percent of eligible residents had signed up to get the vaccine by Memorial Day.
That leaves New Hampshire as the only state in the Northeast without such a mandate, and Sununu was the last one in the Northeast to order one on Nov. 20, 2020.
Sununu got some support recently from Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
According to the VTDigger, Scott and his health commissioner, Mark Levine, defended Sununu on Friday saying the press was ignoring the fact that Sununu was still recommending residents wear face masks.
“We’ve been talking about Gov. Sununu and all the focus has been in the headline — on the mask mandate is gone,” Levine said as reported in the VTDigger. “But if you actually heard what he said and what his public health team is saying constantly, it is, ‘Still wear masks. It’s just we’ve taken the mandate away.’”
Scott ordered face masks Aug. 1, 2020.