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As N.H.'s Vaccine Rollout Continues, Pandemic Progress Stalls On Other Fronts

ICU nurse gets a vaccine shot
Jordyn Haime / NHPR
Elliot ICU nurse Jennifer O'Neill was among the first in New Hampshire to get the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020.

New Hampshire continues its efforts to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to residents. Residents 50 and older became eligible for shots just this week. But the virus continues to spread across the state.

NHPR's Health and Equity reporter Alli Fam has been tracking the latest numbers. She spoke with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about where things stand for the state.

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Rick Ganley: OK, so this week we saw a big expansion of the state's vaccination plan. We're now in a new phase. Lots more people are eligible for shots. And that brought a big test of the state's new online registration site. How are things going now?

Alli Fam: Yeah, it's definitely been a week. So Phase 2b opened on Monday. So those 50 and older were able to register for their vaccine appointments. And, you know, that's a big subset of the population. So around 200,000 folks became newly eligible on Monday. And so basically, you got thousands of people on the state's website, VINI, on the same morning at the same time. And what we saw was a rocky start with that registration system. A lot of frustration, to say the least. I mean, people were spending hours online before they could successfully register and some, you know, didn't have that kind of time. So they went through the day without being able to get that appointment booked.

Explore the Data: Tracking COVID-19 in New Hampshire

Rick Ganley: Yeah. And of course, that was the first day of this new phase. The governor is defending the VINI system. He's carefully picking his words. He's claiming the site didn't crash, just that there were some delays. So is that accurate?

Alli Fam: I mean, NHPR heard from hundreds of people this week on those technical issues with the website. It was all over social media, leading headline statewide throughout the day on Monday. You know, the bottom line is VINI did struggle under that high demand early on Monday. But by later in the day, it appeared to be working for most people. And there were folks who did get through really quickly early in the morning as well.

Rick Ganley: OK, where is the state overall when it comes to vaccine distribution?

Alli Fam: Yeah. So the latest figures from the CDC have about 20 percent of our population that's gotten at least one vaccine dose, and that puts New Hampshire ahead of much of the rest of the country. When we look at folks who are fully vaccinated here in New Hampshire, that's around 14 percent. And that puts us more in the middle of the pack nationally. Recently, we've also become aware of some of the really pretty glaring disparities in vaccination along racial and ethnic lines. So NHPR reported last week that based on state numbers, Black and Latino folks in New Hampshire are being vaccinated at roughly half the rate of white people in the state. And that's despite higher rates of infection among people of color and communities of color just being hard hit by this pandemic. And that disparity mirrors similar trends nationwide. State health officials say that they're working on closing those gaps, in part by targeting a portion of the vaccines that the state gets each week to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Rick Ganley: So Alli, vaccines do continue to be delivered. There is disparity, to be sure. But the virus itself, it's still spreading, isn't it?

Alli Fam: It sure is. It sure is. And in recent days, the numbers there are not looking great. Case counts are ticking up right now. We're averaging about 300 new cases each day in the state. And that number has been rising over the past two weeks after pretty steady daily declines since the end of January. When we look at hospitalizations, those have been plateauing in the past week, again, after steady declines in the beginning of the year. And when we look at deaths, we're also seeing a plateau. The state's averaging between two and three deaths each day over the past month. So in short, that data is not particularly encouraging.

The number of daily new cases of COVID-19 reported in New Hampshire has been rising over the past several weeks, after a steady, months-long decline from the peak in January.

Rick Ganley: What's behind that?

Alli Fam: So there's several factors at play here for sure. We heard from state epidemiologists yesterday on NHPR's The Exchange. And Dr. [Benjamin] Chan was really reiterating we've got to stay vigilant, keep wearing masks, keep social distancing, and that a lot of the cases that we're seeing are from community spread and people getting this so-called COVID fatigue. And we've also seen surges at several college campuses and college towns, like Plymouth and Durham, are really seeing some of the highest per capita case numbers. And there are definitely concerns about the impact of more highly transmissible variants. But Dr. Chan is not pinning these variants to the rise in cases, although Dr. [Elizabeth] Talbot said that they do expect this B117 U.K. variant to become the dominant strain here.

Your Guide To Coronavirus Vaccines in New Hampshire

Rick Ganley: And just one last question, Alli. What's next on the vaccine front for New Hampshire? Is the state going to meet that May 1 guideline sent down by the Biden Administration for the general population to become eligible?

Alli Fam: Yeah, so on the immediate vaccine front, this weekend we've got another mass vaccination site at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and [the state is] hoping to vaccinate around 8,000 Granite Staters there. In terms of the rest of the general population, we don't have a firm date yet for those folks. If we do look at neighboring states, though, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, they've all set April 19 as the day that their residents, age 16 and up can register.

Rick Ganley: Yeah. And again, that May 1 deadline is, of course, guidelines set down by the administration to register for a vaccine. It doesn't it mean everyone will be vaccinated by May 1.

Alli Fam: Yeah, absolutely. That's an important point to make. Eligibility and actually having that shot in your arm are not quite the same.

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