N.H. Officials: Anyone Who Waited In Line To Vote On Election Day Should Monitor for COVID-19
Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 13 with additional information received from state and local officials about the polling place exposures.
Anyone who stood in line at a New Hampshire polling place on Election Day should monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, state officials said Thursday — more than one week after the election took place.
This guidance came as the state announced potential coronavirus exposures linked to four polling places: Souhegan High School in Amherst, Pembroke Academy, Belmont High School and Newfields Elementary School.
“These were all people that identified in the last couple of days of having positive COVID-19 tests and reported being in line and not being able to six-foot socially distance while being in line,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibnette said at a press conference where the state announced the exposures.
In an email responding to further questions from NHPR, Department of Health and Human Services Communications Director Jake Leon said "none of the four persons tested positive prior to voting or were known to have COVID-19 at the time of voting," and "all indicated they wore masks."
Gov. Chris Sununu, a resident and local voter in Newfields, said the person who tested positive after visiting that polling location was present “between 12 and 12:30.” A press release on Amherst’s website says local officials were informed “that someone who voted last Tuesday between 10:15 and 11:15 has tested positive for COVID-19.” An alert on Pembroke's website says a voter tested positive after being at the polls "around 6-7 p.m.," and the state health agency said the voter who tested positive in Belmont was at that polling place in the "early evening," as well.
But Shibinette and Gov. Chris Sununu said anyone who waited in line at a polling place on Election Day — regardless of whether they were at one of the locations with a potential exposure — should be on alert for coronavirus symptoms.
“What we don’t want to do is say these four locations are all you have to worry about,” Sununu said. “Our sense is, there was more voters out there than ever before, and our level of COVID was very, very — higher than it has been in the past. I think the message, the important part of the message is, everybody needs to act like they might have come in contact with, potentially, someone with COVID.”
At Thursday’s press conference, Shibinette said the state became aware of the potential polling place exposures “in the last two or three days.” Leon, the DHHS communications director, said the state received these reports "on multiple days this week through contact tracing with the individuals diagnosed with COVID-19."
While election officials and voters generally reported smooth sailing at the polls last week, long lines were also reported in communities of all sizes. A voter from Amherst, one of the communities now identified as the site of a potential exposure, also reached out to NHPR on Election Day to relay concerns about a lack of social distancing when she cast her ballot.
Amherst Town Moderator Steve Coughlan said he and other election officials did the best they could to facilitate social distancing on Election Day but acknowledged that crowding still happened — even though they used the largest available space in town, a school gymnasium. Coughlan said it was especially challenging to ensure social distancing in the morning and evening rush hours, though traffic was sparser in the middle of the day.
"As I said to many people before the election, I was trying to fit 15 pounds of an election into a 10 pound gym," Coughlan said, echoing a challenge that faced lots of local election officials dealing with limited options for their local polling venues. "The room just wasn't big enough to allow for true six foot social distancing for all times for all people in the room, but we laid out the room as best we could to minimize the time people would be together, closer than six feet."
State election records indicate that a combined 12,000 people passed through the polling places in Amherst, Pembroke, Belmont and Newfields on Election Day. Statewide, more than 553,000 people showed up to vote in-person on Nov. 3.
In the months leading up to the elections, election officials encouraged voters to vote absentee this year in order to practice better social distancing at the polls and to avoid the kind of potential polling place exposures the state is now warning against. About 260,000 voters — or 32 percent — availed themselves of the state’s expanded COVID-19 absentee voting options this year.
The governor himself cast a ballot at one of the affected polling places, in Newfields, though he says he was there several hours before the potential exposure took place.
“There really was no ability to cross over there,” Sununu said. “But again, it’s a statewide concern. And I think everyone needs to just, again, if you have symptoms, if you have concerns, stay quarantined, get tested, follow the protocols we’ve put in place.”
Sue McKinnon, Sununu's local town clerk in Newfields, says state officials alerted her to the potential polling place exposure Thursday morning, a few hours before it was announced in the governor's press conference. McKinnon said her community did the best it could to make their polling place as safe as possible.
"The voters had access to every other voting booth, all the election workers had plexiglass in front of them, we all wore masks the entire day," she said. "We had hand sanitizer available at every location: as you're coming into the entry way, as you're entering the polling location, at the check-in table, at the check-out table."
Belmont Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin said she also learned about the potential polling place exposure in her community a few hours before it was announced publicly on Thursday. Beaudin said state officials contacted Belmont’s health officer to disclose the exposure and to let the town know that it would be discussed at Thursday’s press conference. Beaudin said she and other local officials took their own steps to notify local officials who worked at the polls last Tuesday, as well as the superintendent of the school where voting took place.
“I think that we are fairly confident that this was not a high-risk exposure, obviously any exposure to COVID-19 is a risk,” Beaudin said. “But I believe the individual was wearing a mask, and I know that the town clerk's staff and poll workers were doing everything possible to make certain that social distancing to the best of their ability was maintained.”
Pembroke Town Clerk James Goff said state officials reached out to his community on Tuesday. Based on what he knows, Goff said the individual who tested positive was at the Pembroke polling place close to closing time, long after most other voters already passed through.
Goff said he's confident in the precautions Pembroke officials took last Tuesday — including a mandatory mask policy inside the polling place and plexiglass shields separating voters from the pollworkers checking them in — as well as the support he received from state election officials leading up to the vote.
"As far as support, making sure we had everything we needed, I thought they did a good job," Goff said. "And I thought my ballot clerks, anyone who was working, took it really seriously."
Coughlan, the moderator in Amherst, said officials in his community are doing the best they can to respond with the information they have been given about the voter who tested positive. Since they received word of the potential exposure, two pollworkers who might have been in close contact with the voter have since tested negative, he said.
But Coughlan said the state did not share the individual voter's name — only the first letter of their last name, to determine what check-in line they might have passed through — which has somewhat hindered their local efforts at contact tracing.
"It would help us to pinpoint who might have had the closest exposure to the voter," Coughlan explained.
Leon, the DHHS communications director, said sharing that information "would be a HIPAA violation."
"Contact tracing identified those who had direct exposure," Leon said. "When all potential close contacts cannot be identified, public notification is warranted."
As of Friday afternoon, the Secretary of State’s office, which has been spearheading the state’s strategy for running elections during the pandemic, did not reply to questions from NHPR about the Election Day exposures and any steps they are taking to respond.