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With COVID deaths and hospitalizations rising, N.H. looks to bring in health workers from out of state

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Peter Biello/NHPR
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As New Hampshire's health care system continues to buckle from surging COVID-19 hospitalizations, state health officials announced Tuesday they will contract with out-of-state workers to help alleviate health care staffing shortages.

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The push for additional staffing comes as overburdened hospitals are sending some COVID-19 patients as far away as Connecticut and upstate New York to receive treatment.

Gov. Chris Sununu and top state health officials warned that the COVID-19 pandemic was far from over.

“We’re not on the back side of this by any means,” Sununu said during a press conference Tuesday.

On Monday, 902 new people were diagnosed with COVID-19, according to state data, with close to 400 hospitalizations from the illness in the state. That's the highest number since the start of the pandemic.

“It doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon,” Sununu said.

Sununu said his administration will use federal money to bring in temporary nurses, nursing assistants and EMTs from out of state to work at long-term care and skilled rehabilitation facilities.

Dubbed "strike teams," these workers are meant to overcome a shortage of staff in non-hospital settings. That shortage contributes to a bottleneck in which patients can’t be discharged from hospitals, state health officials said.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said the state is looking to contract with three to four private vendors to send teams of workers to New Hampshire.

She cautioned it could take several weeks, if not longer, to finalize the contracts and place new workers in long-term care settings.

Health officials also said Tuesday the new omicron variant of COVID-19 had not yet been identified in New Hampshire, nor in the U.S., but is likely to arrive soon.

The U.S. has blocked travel to several countries since the variant was detected in South Africa and Botswana last week.

Though much is still unknown about omicron, the variant presents a “very high” risk, according to the World Health Organization.

Sununu said he has no plans to reinstate public health measures like mask mandates or business closures. Instead, he has advocated for boosting vaccination rates and testing. One of those initiatives, a new state program to deliver free at-home tests to Granite Staters, ran out tests less than 24 hours after it was launched.

Sununu called the program a success and encouraged neighbors and friends to share tests with those who weren’t able to get one.

Several other states, like Missouri and Colorado, have had free at-home tests for several months.

The state is also hosting a statewide booster shot clinic on Dec. 11. Boosters will be available at multiple sites across the state, by scheduled appointment only. Sununu said walk-ins would not be available.

Sununu said he would get his booster shot at that event.

New Hampshire residents can sign up for their “booster blitz” appointment starting Wednesday morning at vaccines.nh.gov.