‘We are drowning in COVID’: Surge in Sullivan County frustrates residents, health workers
CLAREMONT — Kathy White, a 67-year-old Charlestown resident, had both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine, followed by a booster, but contracted the virus during an October visit with her son and his children.
White, who has an underlying autoimmune condition, got very sick and was “down for a couple of weeks,” she said during an interview in the Walmart parking lot in Claremont last week.
She recovered, she believes, with the help of immunity she developed through the vaccine as well as monoclonal antibodies she received at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon. Though now “doing good,” White remains frustrated as the pandemic persists.
People have made it to the moon, but “can’t get ahold of this pandemic,” she said.
White is not alone in her frustration with the persistence of the virus in the Twin States. Case rates and hospitalizations are higher than they’ve ever been. The case rates in the Sullivan County communities of Claremont, Charlestown and Newport, and across the Connecticut River in Windsor County’s Springfield, Vt., are among the highest in the Twin States. The cases are straining the health care system, and they continue to affect area schools, long-term care facilities and community organizations. One contributing factor is the low vaccination rate in these communities, though public health officials hope that rate will shift upward with time and increasing availability of vaccines.
“While the rate of transmission statewide has increased significantly this fall, the data is clear that Sullivan County is experiencing higher levels of transmission than elsewhere in the state,” said Jake Leon, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.
The rate per 100,000 people in the last 14 days in Sullivan is 1,328 new cases, as compared to 807.5 new cases per 100,000 statewide, Leon said Thursday. The test positivity rate in Sullivan County is also higher than the statewide average, 13% compared with 9.3%.
With just 50% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Sullivan County lags behind the statewide average of 55%. That’s well below Grafton County’s vaccination rate of more than 61%.
Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont is seeing more inpatient cases of COVID-19 than it has previously.
“We are drowning in COVID,” said Dr. Jocelyn Caple, Valley Regional’s interim CEO and chief medical officer. “We have had a surge of COVID-positive cases at the hospital peaking at almost double the patient cases we had during the largest peak last winter; this is the highest number we have had at any time throughout the pandemic.
Recently, Valley Regional, which has 25 beds, had a pandemic high of 10 COVID-19 patients at one time on the inpatient unit, Caple said. Prior to the current surge, the high had been six.
The majority of the inpatient cases have been unvaccinated people, Caple said. Valley Regional’s surge comes as the state as a whole is seeing a higher number of COVID-19 hospitalizations — 340 — than it saw during the peak last January, before vaccines were widely available.
“As a physician who has had a front row seat to all of this, it can be disheartening to consider how many of these illnesses could have been avoided with more widespread vaccination — especially in our local community,” said Dr. Josh Rudner, Valley Regional’s emergency department medical director. “Myself and our entire care team does experience a degree of burnout related to the persistence of this pandemic and the ways it has impacted our daily work — increased volume, cumbersome and restrictive personal protective equipment, regional capacity limitations, etc.”
Like most hospitals in the Twin States, Valley Regional has had trouble finding hospital beds for patients needing critical care for COVID-19 and other conditions.
“At times, we are still having to transfer some patients far beyond our region, even several states away,” Rudner said. “The pandemic has also had an impact in limiting patient access to outpatient services from primary care to mental health services.”
Sullivan County long-term care facilities continue to see outbreaks. As of Thursday, an outbreak at Woodlawn Care Center in Newport included at total of 14 cases, including five residents and nine workers, according to DHHS.
A federal vaccine mandate for health care workers is pending.
Claremont schools continue to report cases of COVID-19 through an online dashboard. Through Thursday, there were 25 new cases in the city’s schools.
Tracey Osgood, a behavior specialist at Stevens High School, worked with a student to decorate Broad Street Park with Christmas lights on Thursday morning. Osgood said that many people she knows have gotten the virus, including a friend in Florida who had to be on a ventilator, and her teenage granddaughter and her boyfriend.
“I’m not saying it’s not serious,” Osgood said.
Her granddaughter was out of school for almost two weeks due to her illness and has “had to work to get her grades back up,” Osgood said.
Her mother, who is vaccinated and has an appointment for a booster shot, has urged Osgood get vaccinated as well. But Osgood said she’s had an allergic reaction to another vaccine and is unconvinced that a COVID-19 vaccine is right for her. She hasn’t ruled it out, but she remains unvaccinated and wears masks only when required to do so. On a recent trip to Lebanon, Osgood and her party decided not to have dinner at Salt hill Pub, when a member of the waitstaff asked them to put on masks in accordance with the Lebanon’s mask mandate.
Abigail Anderson, a 24-year-old Springfield resident, also said she is not vaccinated and is unsure it’s right for her.
“I kind of want to be,” she said during an interview in the Walmart parking lot. But, she said, she is breastfeeding her 7-month-old and the newness of the shots make her nervous. Nerves about the vaccine also have led her to opt against getting her 7-year-old vaccinated at this point.
Still, she is worried about the effect that continued transmission of the virus may have on her family. She said she usually tries to wear a mask, but during a busy morning she’d forgotten it.
Like Claremont schools, Springfield schools also have struggled with COVID-19 cases this fall, so much so that the superintendent there declared a “September snow day” at one point and closed the schools for a day. Anderson said she worries that her 7-year-old’s first somewhat normal school year might be interrupted.
“A friend of mine had to quarantine,” she said. “Luckily we haven’t. It’s a little scary. That’s why I try not to do too much.”
Claremont does not have a mask mandate in place and appears unlikely to institute one. City employees are required to wear masks when interacting with the public and the city has a “strong recommendation” that members of the public wear masks in city buildings, City Manager Ed Morris said.
“We continue to deal with it,” Morris said. “We take the safety precautions we need so we’re not transmitting it at work.”
The Claremont Opera House recently surveyed its patrons about the venue’s approach to COVID-19 protocols and received a split response, according to the opera house’s website.
“Some responded that we should allow patrons to choose whether to wear a mask or not, and they do not support proof-of-vaccination requirements, while others will not attend shows until we include requirements for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test,” according to a web post by Board President Felicia Brych and Executive Director Andrew Pinard.
At this point, the venue requires masks, is limiting seating to 40% occupancy and is restricting food and drink to the atrium. It is not requiring proof of vaccination as most other large venues in the state are, Brych and Pinard wrote.
Several events at the opera house were recently canceled or postponed for COVID-19-related reasonsm and the venue is underselling shows by 50-80%m partly due to a reluctance of patrons to attend public events in Claremont, they wrote.
The divided approaches to pandemic restrictions are apparent elsewhere as well. The Claremont Senior Center recently canceled a craft fair for COVID-19 reasons, but a craft fair scheduled for Stevens High School next month is still on.
Claremont Mayor Charlene Lovett said she’s concerned about the high case rate’s effect on the city’s economy and on the health care system.
“It impacts employee availability, both in the private and public sector,” she said.
She noted that the state has recently set up a free COVID-19 testing site at River Valley Community College and pointed to a successful COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Veterans Day at the Claremont fire station. The clinic vaccinated 327 people, including 94 children ages 5 to 11, who recently became eligible for vaccination.
Access to vaccines is still a frustration for some. On Thursday, Claremont resident Matt Batchelder exited the CVS on Wall Street disappointed. The 35-year-old electrician, who wore a mask, said he had tried to get a walk-in appointment this summer with no luck and was motivated again to seek the shots by increasing case counts.
“It’s life now,” he said of the presence of COVID-19 in the community. “There’s not much we can do about it.”
Though disappointed at CVS on Thursday, Batchelder said he would try to get a vaccine through his primary care provider.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Greater Sullivan County Public Health Network have scheduled a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Claremont Soup Kitchen for all doses, for people ages 12 and older. There is no registration required.
In addition, the Claremont School District has a vaccination clinic scheduled for Dec. 5, and the New Hampshire mobile vaccination van is scheduled to make a stop at the town office in Newbury, N.H. on Dec. 5 from 1 to 5 p.m. prior to the town’s tree lighting. All vaccines, including boosters, are available, and anyone 5 and older can be vaccinated. Walk-ins are welcome, or appointments can be made by calling the Newbury Library at 603-763-5803.
More information about vaccines is online at vaccines.gov, vaccines.nh.gov and healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/getting-covid-19-vaccine, or by phone at 855-722-7878.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
Woodcrest Village Assisted Living is in New London, in Merrimack County. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect location for the facility.