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Gov. Sununu Says N.H. Schools Will Likely Remain Closed For The Year; Tourism Season Will Be 'Rough'

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

One month ago today, Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in New Hampshire due to the coronavirus.

Since then, the governor has issued more than two dozen additional emergency orders, touching nearly every aspect of life in the state - shutting all public schools, closing nonessential businesses, and encouraging Granite Staters to stay at home unless necessary.

Sununu spoke with NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley on Monday (April 13) to discuss the state's progress on fighting COVID-19. 

Listen to the interview:

Note: The following transcript was machine-generated and may contain errors. It has been lightly edited for clarity

Sununu: Good morning. I honestly can't believe you said it was a month. I didn't realize that. It honestly seems like it's been about a year. I can't believe it's only been four weeks. Holy cow. 

Ganley: It certainly does. Yeah, it does certainly feel like that, I think, for all of us. I want to start by asking about nursing homes, first and foremost, and the risk there. We know of COVID-19 related deaths tied to three long term care homes here in New Hampshire. State health officials have said COVID-19 is present in at least ten others. Why not disclose every infection tied to nursing homes as other states have given the risk to those who live there?

Sununu: Sure. So you know what we try to do with and with the long term care facilities... First off, they are one of the highest risk. We know that. They're not just having one case there, but it's been spread very, very rapidly. So when there's an official outbreak... and the Department of Public Health really classifies what's an outbreak and usually it's more than one or two or three, depending on where it is, who has it and how fast it's spreading. We then make those facilities public. The fear about just one individual, maybe one worker or something that's positive for COVID if they were able to be isolated, and there's truly not night an outbreak situation, you know, you don't want to essentially out that person. Right? We always talk about that indirect exposure of that individual in terms of who they are, and, you know, just be careful with HIPAA. You also don't want to spread a panic where there's not necessarily a need to panic. So I think they're just taking an even keeled approach in terms of how they do it. I appreciate the approach. It's helping her support public health.

Ganley: Is there some kind of criteria, some kind of number that's a tipping point where the disclosure becomes public?

Sununu: I think it's a case by case basis because each facility is of a different size. They're all run maybe a little bit differently. And the rapidity at which it could potentially be spreading also comes into play. So you have to look at all the different variables. I think in terms of determining whether it's quote unquote, "an outbreak" and what it is, we'll make that public and let people know as quickly as possible.

Ganley: What are the testing policies, Governor? Nursing homes... once there is an infection that's been detected, is every resident and staffer are tested at that point?

Sununu: So given that we've been able to increase our testing over the past couple weeks, we've had a lot more success in trying to get even asymptomatic folks, employees and residents, of a lot of the long term care facilities tested. I don't think we've gotten through all of them yet. I was talking to the CEO of Riverwood for example down in Exeter. They're working very closely with Convenient MD to get all of their staff tested. Again, just to get that isolation. Now you have to be careful with that a little because if you're asymptomatic you could come up with a false negative. They could say you don't have it. But if you're not expressing symptoms, sometimes you potentially could. And that test won't necessarily show it. So you've got to be careful with that a little bit. It's not an end all be all. Also when you test negative as a worker or as a resident, it doesn't mean that's negative forever. Right? You know, they could catch it tomorrow. So that's why it's so important to isolate those individuals very quickly. So as we ramp up testing, we're having more ability to do that. We'd love to ramp up testing 10 times, 100 times of what it is today. A lot of the new tests is, as I think a lot of folks heard, we got some new testing devices last week, but really only minimal ability to use them because the federal government dictates how many of the quote "cartridges" that you have to do the test, and we weren't given many. We think we're going to get a few hundred more this week and that'll open up that opportunity for those types of locations. But we're not there yet.

Ganley: So I did want to ask about that in general. Are we testing enough? Do we have the data we need to really get a hold of this?

Sununu: No, no. No one in America is testing enough. I mean, for me, enough would be when I could put 1.35 million tests for 1.35 million people, isolate the positives and the negatives, start opening things back up, and you really start to contain the virus and mitigate that viral spread. We're not even remotely close to that, unfortunately. But we have a variety of different tests, right? We have the public health lab. There's one type of test. Dartmouth-Hitchcock is ramping up their capacity to do another type of test. Some hospitals have something called the [INAUDIBLE] test, which is on the spot test [INAUDIBLE]. So we have four or five different means to do it in different areas. Convenient MD has been a huge partner. They're doing a lot of the commercial testing and sampling force here in the state now, which is which is great. And then you have all the exterior labs. If you sent... if your provider, for example, you know, giving your symptoms, you should really be tested, they take the test, they send it to a commercial lab out of state. Those labs are great and they're doing amazing work. They're doing the tens to hundreds of thousands of tests a day. But there is still a 10 to 14 day backlog on them. So that makes it really difficult for those individuals. So my point is, even where we think we have enough testing, there's still a lot of backlog, it takes a lot of manpower, we're using outside labs as best we can. We're still a ways away from anyone being satisfied with the amount of testing we're doing in the state.

Ganley: Let's talk about the state's health infrastructure in general. You've established a $50 million dollar fund last month to help health care providers struggling financially. The first grant went to LRGH Health Care about a week ago, more than 5 million. There's a big demand, though, beyond that. For instance, Catholic Medical Center estimated is losing millions each month because of this, because of COVID-19. Other hospitals report big losses as well. Is 50 million enough?

Sununu: Yet the quick answer is no. The $50 million was established to make sure those that were really on the brink of closure didn't have to close. And so LRGH and a few others. We're trying to mitigate the number of furloughs. A lot of state health care facilities are furloughing their staff. We've tried to mitigate that and minimize that as much as we can. So that's really where those first dollars are going. Overall, this state is... the healthcare offices in the state are losing approximately somewhere in the tune of 150 million dollars a month because they're not doing elective surgery, they're not doing certain procedures that they otherwise would be doing. It's absolutely devastating economically. The federal government has set up a couple of different rounds of funding. One just came out last week and the hospitals in particular in New Hampshire got a lot of money, tens of millions of dollars was gonna be released to them last week from the federal government. There's another fund that's being set up that helps the health care facilities, and hospitals can apply into it. It's like a hundred billion dollar fund that they set up to get another round of funding there. Ours was created first even a way ahead of the federal government, I think we were the first state to do it as a backstop. We wanted the citizens to know those doors wouldn't be closed. Ultimately, will we as a state have to put more money in there? Yeah, possibly. You know, we're going to do whatever we need to do to keep those doors open. We're hoping that the federal government's new fund, now that they've come in to backfill a little bit of what we're doing, will also help to mitigate those efforts. But the big point here is long term health care and hospitals of this state are going to be losing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars over the next four to six months, depending on how fast things come back. So we're going to have to look very aggressively at getting things quote "back to normal," at least within the hospital care. Like can people go in for elective surgery? We'll set up something where they can do it safely, there's not the fear of spread of COVID, to allow those facilities to start generating the revenue and doing the business that they need to be doing, not just for themselves, but to keep themselves viable for all the citizens and the next unknown, really. So it's a big issue. We're on the forefront of it. But we've got a long way to go.

Ganley: Well, what could that look like, Governor? Would some facilities possibly be opened up for elective surgeries, others not depending on data on where cases are, or hotspots around the state?

Sununu: It could be. We really don't know. We're looking at different models around the country. Some facilities will say, okay, this wing over there is the COVID wing and this over here is for elective surgery. Some states are looking at a model that says this hospital is the COVID hospital, these ones are open for elective, and we put a lot of our funds to backstop the COVID hospitals. I was talking to Senator Hassan about this just a couple of nights ago. You know, the senators, I think, have done a good job in Washington. They're also working with their counterparts nationally, as I have been with governors as well to see what might work. But this is one of the first areas where I think we have to be aggressive about a model. And I'm not taking it back to quote "normal," I dont know if what we used to think is normal is going to be nromal in any of these models going forward. But once we do in a safe way that keeps the public health interests protected, but get some of these healthcare facilities back on track because we're going to need them for the long haul.

Ganley: You and the state epidemiologist, Ben Chan, said last week that measures like the stay-at-home order seems to be working to slow the spread. Is it possible that the state could lift that order any time soon? Or other restrictions and then bring them back if infections pick up again in another wave later in the year?

Sununu: Yeah, so anytime soon? No, probably not. I mean, soon being in the next couple weeks, I don't see any way that that could happen. I mean, why... we've hit a plateau, we're not dropping precipitously by any by any means. We're still hitting 30, 40, 50, cases a day, something like that on any given day. And we'll probably be bouncing around with these types of numbers for quite some time. So the state-at-home order, you know, we really look to the CDC to provide a lot of those recommendations. Not that we have to do exactly what the CDC advises or recommends. But we take what they're recommending and try to make sure it's working within our models. And I think that'll be in place at least for the short run. Long term, we're going to look at other things. Can you get, you know, certain businesses back up and running under a new model that is using physical distancing, allowing remote purchases, or something like that? For example, bookstores, right? A lot of bookstores are now coming back online because if you're buying your books over the phone or over the Internet, and you're doing a curbside pickup with no cash transactions. It's a different model, but it's allowing a lot of facilities to stay open.

What's the summer going to look like? We've done a good job, I think, keeping our parks open, encouraging the social distancing. We have more staff out there helping to manage that. But as it gets hotter, you know, we want those parks to be open, but in a safe manner. The beaches is a big one. I don't know how that would possibly work, to be honest. We have four or five different models. We're bringing the folks in from the Seacoast and we're bringing folks in from Massachusetts and Maine. Right? What are they going to do? Because we're so regional in what happens here. If we open up one thing, but Massachusetts doesn't, we're going to get an onslaught, whether it's golf courses or beaches or whatever it might be. And that's not necessarily what you want. Massachusetts is still peaking out with their numbers. I mean, they still have really, really high numbers that they're presenting. So, we've got to make sure we're not inviting that problem back in New Hampshire. So there's a lot of variables, everyone's working on it. It's a 24 hour day job, I think, as everyone knows. But, we've got some dedicated people here. We've got a great team up here helping to make a lot of these very tough decisions.

Ganley: But the tourist season, beginning traditionally around Memorial Day, could look very different around here, I imagine.

Sununu: I think tourist season is going to be incredibly different and it's going to be rough. If you're in the tourism or hospitality industry, that's restaurants, hotels, tourism has taken far and away the toughest hit when you look at the unemployment numbers over any other industry. Over this summer, it's going to be really, really tough. Now, again, if there's models that we can open up and allow folks to, you know, to open something up, but I don't know how you do that with, again, without [INAUDIBLE] and the folks in downtown Boston to come up and fill up your mountains and your resorts. And again, we want them to come up eventually, but not now. And frankly, this summer... and my guess is probably not this summer because they're still going to be dealing with very serious issues down there. So that's where, when we look at the economic relief that we have or the possible next stimulus package we have, we're going to make a lot of investments based on where the need is. That's what it is, where do we need most? As you mentioned, in the hospitals, in the travel, tourism, restaurants, in manufacturing, in the retail businesses that have been shuttered. I mean retail's taking a massive hit here. Is there a way that we can help support them? I think with the federal government and Senator Hassan and Shaheen, I think, did a very good job on the federal side when they allowed this PPP program to go forward. It's had its hiccups but it is moving forward. Hundreds of millions of dollars in short term loans that ultimately could be forgiven for small businesses are already out the door. That's great. Those applications are in it. And hopefully those funds will be released soon by the federal government. So the feds are really stepping up on the federal side with the funds. It's our job to operationalize that in the areas of the most need. So far we've been successful, but there's a long way to go. A lot lot of money out there, but a long way to go.

Ganley: Let's turn to education quickly, Governor. Students across the state have been learning remotely for a month. Schools closed under your order. How does the state plan to track schools and students' progress in the next year, given concerns about, you know, the achievement gaps during this closure?

Sununu:  Sure. So when it comes to school, let's just focus a little bit on June 1st. Right? Are we going to go back? I'll make a decision later this week. It doesn't look likely, to be honest. We're looking at a couple of different models and whether they would work, whether it's something that we could allow districts to decide. But my guess is that, you know, most districts are committed to probably not going back in. And as are we. We're just not at that point. So we haven't made that decision yet, but my guess is we're probably not going back. Given that you have to look at the end of the year, everything from spring sports to graduations and all that, how that is going to play out. We want to make sure folks are doing it safely. And there's some pretty innovative and interesting ideas about how to do that. Virtual prom, I saw that one. I was in a group out in Indiana are using their virtual phones. So just, some innovative ways to get the end of the year done. But then who knows what the world is going to look like in July and August. And frankly, we'll have to take these decisions then a little bit. We obviously want to make sure that kids are going back to school in some fashion. It's very important. It's good for the economy. 

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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