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As Mask Mandate Lifts, Federal Data Shows N.H. Hospitals Are Still Under Some Pressure

The exterior of Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover
Dan Tuohy, NHPR
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Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover has been “full to the brim” in recent weeks, according to one hospital official.";s:

When Gov. Chris Sununu announced New Hampshire’s mask mandate last November, he cited hospital capacity and staffing strain as key factors in his decision. As that same mandate is now lifted, federal hospital data paints a mixed portrait of the pandemic’s effects on the state’s hospitals: On some fronts things have improved, but on others they’ve actually worsened or stagnated.

(Listen to Gov. Chris Sununu's conversation with NHPR Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley for more details on his decision to drop the state's mask mandate.)

Asked how the current hospitalization outlook squares with his prior stance on the state's mask mandate, Sununu told NHPR that the state is in "such a different position" than we were in November. He pointed to the widespread availability of coronavirus vaccines and declining fatality rates as justification for rolling back mask rules.

Fewer hospitals are reporting critical staff shortages —  or anticipating staffing shortages on the horizon — than when the mask mandate went into effect last year.

But the state’s inpatient beds were more full last week than they were the week the mask mandate went into effect, according to figures reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As of Friday, when the mask mandate was lifted, just under 75 percent of New Hampshire’s inpatient beds were in use — up from a weekly average of just under 70 percent when the mandate was first imposed.

New Hampshire’s ICU beds were also slightly more full last week, on average, than when the mask rule was first imposed.

Statewide, suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients are occupying about the same share of hospital beds as they were in November. But some facilities are feeling more pressure than others.

COVID-19 patient levels were slightly down at some large hospitals, including Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon and Elliot Hospital in Manchester.

But as of last week, Southern New Hampshire Hospital in Nashua was averaging about twice as many confirmed COVID-19 patients as it was when the mask mandate took effect. Concord Hospital, Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, and Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover were also reporting more coronavirus patients than in November, according to the federal data.

A representative for Wentworth-Douglass told NHPR last week that the facility has been “full to the brim” recently, requiring hospital staff to set up overflow beds. The same representative said staffing shortages have improved thanks to the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, but many employees are burnt out from the prolonged effects of fighting the pandemic.

Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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