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Omicron adds uncertainty to N.H.'s COVID response

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Dan Tuohy/NHPR
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At-home rapid COVID-19 tests are part of the state's strategy for limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

As the new omicron variant adds uncertainty to New Hampshire’s COVID-19 surge, state officials say they’re moving ahead with efforts to boost vaccination and testing, but preventative public health measures – such as a statewide mask requirement – remain off the table.

New Hampshire identified its first resident with the omicron variant earlier this week; two more additional cases have since been confirmed. The variant is spreading rapidly in other countries, and health experts say it could quickly become the dominant strain of the virus.

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu said the state plans to open up more vaccination sites and testing options in the coming weeks. But he rejected suggestions that an indoor mask mandate could help slow transmission and ease the burden on hospitals reeling from the highest patient counts they’ve seen since the start of the pandemic.

“The hospitalization issue is going to be just as severe, if not more severe, whether or not there’s a mask mandate,” Sununu said, “Can you curb it a little? Maybe. But I don’t know if a mask order is the end-all be-all.”

Studies show that universal mask use can bring down COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.

A second state-run mass clinic for vaccine booster shots is now scheduled Jan. 8, and registration will open after the new year. The state also plans to open six new fixed vaccination sites, as demand for booster shots remains high.

Sununu said he plans to get thousands more at-home tests delivered to Granite Staters through a partnership with Amazon and the National Institutes of health. And the state is also continuing to use federal money and staffing to prop up its overwhelmed health care system. Some of that help may be short lived: FEMA staff currently at Elliot Hospital in Manchester and Wentworth-Douglass in Dover may leave after just two weeks.

State health officials reported nearly 1,400 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday. New Hampshire has been averaging more than 1,000 new infections each day since the start of December. That's helped push the state to the highest per capita infection rate in the country.

Eleven new deaths tied to the coronavirus were also reported Thursday, and nearly 500 people remain hospitalized from the virus.