By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
While Gov. Chris Sununu refuses to consider a new mask mandate to reduce the spread of COVID-19 during the surge he predicts will only get worse, Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier and others say it is time for New Hampshire to re-institute one.
“I believe a mask mandate is definitely warranted,” Grenier said. In late October Berlin and Gorham both instituted a temporary mask ordinance as the number of cases surged in Coos County.
“When Berlin and Gorham instituted their respective mandates that lasted 36 days, the Androscoggin Valley went from over 250 active cases to around 29 as of today.
“Today in Berlin, we have 18 active cases,” Grenier said.
At last report, Androscoggin Valley Hospital had 2 COVID cases in med-surg, and none in ICU, Grenier said.
“We collectively had the courage to do what was right for our residents given the severity of the situation. I believe the state of New Hampshire has arrived at that point,” Grenier said.
Sununu was the last governor in New England to initiate a mask mandate during the state of emergency and the first to end it.
According to AARP there are currently six states — Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington — that require most people wear masks in indoor public places, whether or not they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and Puerto Rico has a similar order in place.
California, Connecticut and New York have indoor mask mandates for the unvaccinated. And Washington is the only state with an outdoor mask order, requiring face-covering at outside events attended by 500 or more people, AARP reported.
According to Burlington, Vt.’s website, “Effective Friday, December 3, 2021, the City of Burlington requires masks in indoor public settings where substantial numbers of people of unknown vaccination status are interacting.”
Most public schools in New Hampshire have some type of mask requirement, but the issue often causes debate at school board meetings as it has become politicized. COVID-19 vaccinations are also polarizing.
Rich DiPentima, who formerly worked as deputy public health director for Manchester and as chief communicable disease epidemiologist for the state Division of Public Health Services, was critical of Sununu for signing on to the 10-state federal lawsuit that has temporarily halted the Biden administration’s mandate for healthcare workers at Medicare and Medicaid facilities to be vaccinated.
“As the pandemic surges with record numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, our hospitals overwhelmed, a new dangerous variant coming or already here, our governor thinks he is saving hospitals and nursing homes with the Biden Healthcare mandate being enjoined.
“What is going to destroy hospitals and nursing homes is not the mandate, but the lack of a mandate, as more staff get ill and cannot treat patients, and the number of patients needing care that is beyond the ability for them to treat,” DiPentima said.
When asked for a response Thursday, Sununu spokesman Brandon Pratt said he already answered the same questions Monday and Sununu answered them at the press conference Tuesday. He sent a transcript of the press conference and said Sununu’s answer was on Page 15.
“In terms of your question of, isn’t it better to have someone — isn’t it more dangerous to have someone unvaccinated in a healthcare situation? No. I completely disagree with that, because when you look at the idea that nursing homes are about to close, we don’t want anyone to be unvaccinated,” Sununu said.
“Don’t misunderstand me. But, if the choice is having an unvaccinated Nurse treat a vaccinated patient, or no Nurse treat a vaccinated patient, I want someone there with their loved one, because there is so much care and demand on those services that are required in a nursing home or a long-term care facility, or whatever it might be. We want everyone to be vaccinated. But at the end of the day, to lose healthcare workforce is a much worse situation. And to potentially have closure of nursing homes is a much worse situation,” Sununu said.
Sununu has been adamant that there will be no mask mandate at this point and that vaccinations are the best way to end the pandemic. But vaccinations, too, are divisive and have pretty much stalled. Sununu is rarely seen wearing a face mask indoors in public buildings. Masks are optional at the State House.
State Sen. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, who is also a physician, said it is his understanding that the nursing homes are already working to make sure all the health-care workers are vaccinated for the safety of their staff and residents.
“What is undeniable at this moment is New Hampshire now has some of the worst COVID statistics in the country and the Sununu administration has reacted with near complete inaction,” Sherman said.
It is so bad that Sununu has had to allow hospitals to expand their capacity beyond their licensed beds, he said.
The state announced 1,405 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, seven deaths and 397 people in the hospital.
“With infections, hospitalizations and deaths at an all-time high in New Hampshire, our governor’s answer is to push back against our most effective tool – vaccines, even worst, vaccines for those who are at highest risk of infection and transmission of the virus – our front-line health-care workers.
“At a time when our state is clamoring for the governor to lead us out of the pandemic, he again has chosen a path of politics over health and science,” Sherman said.