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State Rolls Out New Measures To Stem COVID-19 Infections, Deaths At Nursing Homes

Dan Tuohy / NHPR
A sign in Portsmouth's Market Square this week delivers a clear message.

As the number of coronavirus-related deaths at New Hampshire nursing homes continues to rise, state officials are instituting new policies they say will limit future infections at long-term care facilities, which have proven particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Four new nursing home deaths – three at Hanover Hill in Manchester and one at The Huntington in Nashua – were announced the same day Gov. Chris Sununu and state health officials detailed plans to test all nursing home employees in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties, where the majority of New Hampshire’s coronavirus infections are located. Sununu also announced a plan to boost pay for people providing care to medically fragile people in and out of residential facilities, statewide.

Sununu said the new measures were necessary to ensure that the state doesn’t see a surge in infections and deaths in the coming weeks.

“Four deaths; these are real numbers,” Sununu said. “This is one of the worst days we’ve had. We have seemed to hit this plateau, and that’s a good thing, but we are by no means on a downslide here.”

The state is partnering with Convenient MD to send mobile testing units to screen workers at nursing homes in the two counties: more than 6,000 employees, health officials estimate. Many facilities have reported screening their workers for COVID-19 every day and turning away those who show symptoms.  Officials say this new round of testing could detect workers who may be spreading the virus without showing symptoms.

“Essentially, this allows us to get about 6,600 additional people tested that are on the front lines of caring for the most vulnerable people in our state,” said New Hampshire Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette.

The state will also begin paying frontline staff an extra $300 per week, a move Sununu said is designed to keep needed workers on the job and earning more than they might receive under enhanced unemployment. The state believes as many as 25,000 caregivers could be eligible for the new stipend, which Sununu said he hopes will end up being paid for by the federal government.

“New Hampshire must strengthen its commitment to this workforce during the emergency, and the additional stipend recognizes the crucial role that these workers play in our overall public health,” Sununu said.

Sununu said employers will be able to apply online to get stipends to pass onto their workers, starting as soon as Wednesday.

Nearly 1,100 people in the state have now tested positive for COVID-19, and 27 people have died - about half of them at long-term care facilities. But state health officials say they are seeing signs of progress. For the past week or so, state epidemiologist Ben Chan said, the number of people in the state hospitalized with COVID-19 has been stable at about 70.

"This is an indication, I think, that our healthcare facilities are not seeing a massive surge or exponential increase in the number of people who are requiring hospitalization,” Chan said. “This is good news."

About 15 percent of COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire have required hospitalization.

Meanwhile, Sununu said he doesn’t expect lifting anytime soon the sweeping executive orders he’s issued in recent weeks in an effort to limit the transmission of coronavirus in the state, including statewide school closures and the requirement that “non-essential” businesses limit in-person commerce.

“I believe public health trumps everything,” Sununu said. “My responsibility as governor is to make sure we don’t have a massive viral spread as we’ve seen across the world, in New York and Boston.”

Sununu said he wasn’t invited to join the group of eastern state governors, spearheaded by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to devise a regional plan to reopen state economies. But Sununu said he’s been in touch with the governors of New Hampshire’s immediate neighbors.

“Not that we are going to stay, necessarily, in lockstep,” Sununu said. “We have to make the right decisions for our state, specifically here in New Hampshire. But understanding where they are when we talk about reopening, possibly, the economy.”

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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