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Sununu dismisses calls for statewide mask mandate, announces new staffing for health care facilities

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Peter Biello/NHPR
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As New Hampshire continues to set new daily records in COVID-19 hospitalizations and caseloads, Gov. Chris Sununu said staff from FEMA and the state National Guard would be heading to help health care facilities overwhelmed by the ongoing surge.

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Sununu said paramedics from FEMA will start work at Elliot Hospital in Manchester this weekend, where at times, the governor said 80 people had been waiting in the emergency room.

As of Wednesday, 462 people were hospitalized in New Hampshire from COVID-19. That's more than twice the number from a month ago. The sharp rise in hospitalizations is straining the state's health care system, including doctors and nurses who say they are running out of beds to care for patients.

Nearly 10,000 New Hampshire residents are currently infected with COVID-19, the highest number since the start of the pandemic. New Hampshire now has the highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 infection in the country. Rates across the Northeast have risen steeply in recent days.

“I don’t think we’re going to peak out here in New England for the next few weeks,” Sununu said at a press conference Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday, the Executive Council gave final approval to spending nearly $90 million in federal money to ease a bottleneck of patients inside of hospitals, and help increase vaccination rates in the state.

The funds will be used to boost payments to long-term care facilities, skilled rehab centers and ambulatory surgical centers, as well as provide stop-gap funding for patients awaiting approval by Medicaid. The state estimates 30-50 patients are currently inside of hospitals awaiting transfer, but can’t be discharged due to a lack of an available bed, or delays in insurance processing.

“Right now, we just need to get people out of the hospital and into long-term care facilities or assisted livings or wherever they need to go, so that we have beds for our critical care patients,” DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette told councilors ahead of the vote.

The council also approved a $6 million contract to bring in an estimated three dozen traveling nurses who will be placed inside of nursing homes, where a lack of available workers is forcing some facilities to mothball entire wings…

The funding will also bring in about three dozen traveling nurses from out of state to help with ongoing workforce shortages.

Dr. Ben Chan, the state’s epidemiologist, said the omicron variant had not been identified yet in New Hampshire, though sequencing was being done to identify it.

Sununu has pledged to increase staff and financial support to hospitals and long-term care facilities struggling to keep up with the COVID-19 surge. But he said he has no plans to consider preventative measures like indoor mask mandates or limitations on public gatherings, as he did earlier in the pandemic.

“We’re not looking at that right now,” he said. “You’re effectively penalizing a good portion of the state who have been vaccinated.

“Some of the prevention measures have drastic consequences,” Sununu added.

He said individual cities and towns can set their own mask mandates or other restrictions if they wish to.

Sununu also dismissed questions about vaccine mandates, saying his opposition to them hasn’t changed. His administration has sued President Biden, along with several other Republican-led states, over federal vaccine mandates for healthcare workers which are now on pause in the state.

New Hampshire recently distributed thousands of at-home COVID tests, delivered to residents via Amazon. However, demand for tests far exceeded the supply, and tests ran out after just one day.

Over the past week, an average of six people have died per day from COVID-19 in New Hampshire.

Updated: December 8, 2021 at 5:47 PM EST
This story was updated with more information about the Executive Council vote.