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N.H. Marks First COVID-19 Death As Sununu Says 'Shelter-In-Place' Order Not Yet Needed

Annie Ropeik/NHPR
A sign at an Exeter grocery store alerts shoppers to changes due to coronavirus concerns.

New Hampshire reported its first death from COVID-19, as the number of confirmed cases of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus rose above 100. The person who died was a Hillsborough County man above the age of 60 who had several underlying medical complications, according to state health officials.

The death was announced at a press conference in Concord Monday morning at which Gov. Chris Sununu ordered a limit on all public gatherings to 10 people or fewer - but said that he doesn't yet believe New Hampshire needs to take the step of ordering people to stay home. Instead, Sununu said New Hampshire residents must practice social distancing and "be accountable to each other.”

“How we act in these days ahead are going to be very important,” Sununu said. “If it becomes clear that we are unable to continue with the social distancing, further action may be necessary to ensure the health and safety of our neighbors.”

Sununu’s announcement came as a growing number of public officials urge him to take more stringent steps, such as ordering all non-essential businesses to close and telling residents to remain at home. The mayors of Manchester and Nashua on Monday issued a joint statement calling on Sununu to order a so-called “shelter in place” requirement to slow the spread of the virus.

"We are making this request based upon the advice of our local medical experts and our public health department,” Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess said in the statement with Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig.  “For the health of the people in our community, we need to require work from home for non-essential employees, and we need to take all other reasonable precautions, to contain the spread of the coronavirus.”

Governors in several states, including California, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey, have issued similar orders or required non-essential businesses to close in recent days. On Monday, Massachusetts joined that list, as Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses to close by Tuesday afternoon and remain closed until at least April 7. Essential businesses, including supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations, and manufacturers of medical supplies will remain open in that state. The Massachusetts Department of Health also issued a stay-at-home advisory until April 7 but stressed that it wasn’t a shelter-in-place order.

Sununu described New Hampshire’s response as a "regional approach” that was in line with what neighboring states are doing.

"Again, we are on the same page as those other states,” Sununu said. “I understand the concept of shelter in place, but even if you look at what's going on in a state like Connecticut, for example, virtually all the businesses are open. They are not preventing people from going out, they are not preventing people from accessing most of their public places; we are doing the exact same thing here."

In fact, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont ordered all non-essential businesses in that state to close by Monday evening.

"This is tough medicine," Lamont said Sunday. "I think it’s the right medicine."

The debate over shelter-in-place orders in New Hampshire came on the same day that the state Department of Health and Human Services announced that local cases of COVID-19 reached 101. Eleven of those people have required hospitalization. State epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan said he expects the numbers of people suffering COVID-19 to climb dramatically.

Sununu also said the state is working with health care providers to set up more temporary hospital bed space. The eight sites across the state would be used in the event that a surge of coronavirus patients overwhelms existing hospital bed capacity. The first site expected to be ready will be in Manchester at Southern New Hampshire University. Catholic Medical Center and Elliot Hospital will handle clinical care at that location.

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