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State Plans For Testing Expansion As Outbreaks Continue At Long-Term Care Homes

Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Signs offers thanks to postal and delivery workers outside the USPS office in Durham last week.

The state will expand testing for COVID-19 to every long-term care facility in New Hampshire, as health officials announced three new outbreaks of the illness at nursing homes.

Long-term care facilities have been the site of a majority of all New Hampshire COVID-19 cases for several weeks. Of the 75 new cases announced Monday, 40 were residents or employees at the facilities. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services last week began testing all staff at facilities located in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties, the epicenter of infections in New Hampshire. But as outbreaks continue at nursing homes, that testing will now expand to eventually cover every nursing home and long-term care facility in the state.

The newly announced coronavirus outbreaks are at:

  • Birch Hill Retirement Community in Manchester, with positive test results for seven residents and four staff members;
  • Crestwood Center in Milford, with positive tests for 14 residents and four staff members;
  • Salemhaven Long Term Care and Rehabilitation Center in Salem, with nine residents and two staff members testing positive.

In addition to ramping up testing at long-term care facilities, the state health department said that coronavirus testing will soon be available to anyone with symptoms of the virus, even if the symptoms are mild. That’s a shift from previous state policy, which limited testing to healthcare workers and those showing severe symptoms of COVID-19.

The new guidance comes as the state says it has received more testing materials.

In a press conference Monday, Gov. Chris Sununu said the state is close to reaching its goal of testing 1,500 people a day, and even more in the weeks to come.

“As time goes on, we've seen more materials become available, so I have every faith and confidence that more materials will continue to become available to keep reaching that ceiling,” Sununu said.

As part of this push, the state announced plans to open five new testing locations this week, in Tamworth, Claremont, Lancaster, Plymouth, and Rochester. Under the expanded testing protocol, people with symptoms – including fever, breathing problems or muscle pain – should first call their doctor.

Sununu also said Monday that he will likely extend the state’s stay-at-home order further into May. The current stay-at-home order is set to expire next Monday, May 4th. Sununu said he is awaiting recommendations from a task force to determine how and when to re-open parts of the economy, and those recommendations will be incorporated into the next stay-at-home order.

“We may be able to come back and augment it and adjust it and try to create some flexibility there so people can start getting back in some sense to normalcy,” Sununu said.

In recent weeks, Sununu has suggested he prefers a “phased” approach to re-opening the state’s economy, in consultation with governors from neighboring states. But he’s provided few details of what that might look like in practical terms. On Monday, Sununu stressed that normalcy may not come for over a year or until a vaccine becomes widely available.

"It's so important to take the time, look at the data, work with public health, get the guidance, and get it right off the bat,” Sununu said. “So, yes, we're not rushing things like some people would like us to rush. That would be massively irresponsible."

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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