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With COVID-19 Deaths Rising, N.H. Holds Back On Restrictions

December has been the deadliest month of the pandemic in New Hampshire. The state reported more than 200 deaths this month so far, and the number of people hospitalized remains more than double where it stood before Thanksgiving. Other states in New England have also seen a surge in COVID-19, leading governors to implement new restrictions in an effort to flatten the curve.

But so far, Gov. Chris Sununu has resisted similar measures in New Hampshire.

NHPR's Jordyn Haime spoke with All Things Considered host Peter Biello about where the state stands on COVID-19.

Peter Biello: So first, let's just establish where we are in the pandemic at this moment. There's been a significant rise in recent weeks in three of the most important metrics: case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths. What are we hearing from the governor?

Jordyn Haime: Gov. Sununu continues to talk about the pandemic very much how he has has since it started here in March. In press conferences, he's pretty much offering what you would call an upbeat assessment. He repeatedly praises officials in his administration. He praises the state's residents, as well as his own decision making, essentially saying that things could be a lot worse here. Here's a bit of what he said last week, just before the Christmas holiday, even as cases were nearly at an all time high:

We took the very aggressive move prior to Thanksgiving to putting the masks mandate in place. We're seeing some of the benefits of that now. Our numbers have, over the last week, have stabilized, even come down a little bit, which is really good news. You know, was there a bump after Thanksgiving? A little bit, to be sure. Not as big as some other states. - Gov. Sununu, December 22 press conference

Peter Biello: "A bit of a bump." Is that what the state's data shows us?

Jordyn Haime: Well, if you look at the state's own data, it's clear that the last few weeks have been the worst of the pandemic. It's far from a bump.

The number of deaths this month has surpassed 200. And that means that December is the deadliest month in New Hampshire's pandemic to date. The number of patients hospitalized is also close to 300 right now; it's kind of shifted between about 250 to 300 for a few weeks now. And I've been speaking with hospital executives in different parts of the state regularly who say that's putting a lot of stress on hospitals and their staff.

If you're having trouble with the chart below, try landscape mode or click here to view separately.

There are also other ways to measure the severity of things here. We can look at the test positivity rate. It's hovered around 7, 8, 9 percent over the past week or so, which is pretty close to the national average. And to compare at the beginning of November, our positivity rate was around 2 or 3 percent.

To be clear, New Hampshire is far from the worst impacted state. In fact, overall, we're faring a little bit better than even some other New England states. So, our numbers may appear to be stabilizing right now, but they're stabilizing at a much higher level than even a few weeks ago. And doctors and hospitals are expecting another spike in the next few weeks due to travel and gatherings over the winter holidays.

Peter Biello: So what about other states? What do neighboring states in particular look like? And what are their governors doing about the recent spike?

Jordyn Haime: Well, it can get kind of tricky to do comparisons, because every state has unique differences in things like population and demographics. Those are all factors that can impact the spread of COVID-19. But if we look at our two neighbors, Vermont and Maine, these are the states that most people would lump New Hampshire in with: Both of them are faring far better than we are right now.

Vermont's positivity rate is about 2 percent. Its population is about half of New Hampshire's, but it's recorded 130 or so deaths, while New Hampshire's death toll is over 700. Maine has a very similar demographic makeup and a nearly identical population to New Hampshire. It's recorded about half of the number of deaths and is seeing far fewer daily cases.

Peter Biello: And those two states, along with Massachusetts, have enacted new restrictions in recent weeks. What do those look like?

Jordyn Haime: In the past month or so, Vermont and Massachusetts have introduced a number of new restrictions as they saw their numbers continue to rise. So these are things like putting more capacity limits on restaurants, putting a curfew on bars and restaurants, and further limiting travel. In New Hampshire, Sununu implemented a statewide mask mandate. But this was just before Thanksgiving a month ago. Since then, he's said that he's watching the data that, that nothing is off the table, but he hasn't announced new steps to flatten the curve since then. So in terms of policy, New Hampshire is an outlier in New England.

If you're having trouble with the chart below, try landscape mode or click here to view separately.

Peter Biello: And what is Sununu's reasoning for not doing anything new right now?

Jordyn Haime: There seem to be two main reasons behind this. First, Sununu is hesitant to do anything that would harm the economy. He frequently references the state's low unemployment rate. He says that any new restrictions like, say, on indoor dining or on gyms would negatively impact the economy. And second, he has said that he's not convinced new restrictions would slow the virus right now. He implies that the virus is going to run its course regardless of government interventions. And he often points to states like California that have imposed new restrictions but are still seeing cases rise.

Peter Biello: Well, we have seen stricter restrictions here in New Hampshire earlier in the pandemic, when the governor shut down non-essential businesses for two months, we saw a dramatic decline in cases and deaths. But are there incremental measures that could prove effective? What do public health experts say?

Jordyn Haime: Experts say it's very important to have consistent, clear messaging that is in line with science and to continue adjusting, you know, that guidance and messaging as the pandemic develops. I spoke with Dr. Tim Lahey about this. He's an infectious disease physician and a professor of medical ethics at the University of Vermont.

The assertion that governmental efforts to control the epidemic don't work is flat out wrong. You know, the evidence is quite clear that it works. You know, there's just study after study showing that encouraging masks or discouraging large gatherings helps. - Tim Lahey

Jordyn Haime: There are targeted measures that could be implemented right now that do not equate to a blanket shutdown of the economy. So experts say these are things like limiting crowd sizes, implementing stronger capacity limits for businesses, more restrictions on bars and indoor dining. And these are all things that we've seen our neighboring states do.

Editor's note: This post includes updated coronavirus numbers and data as of Dec. 29 at 5 p.m.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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