State officials announced Tuesday that a fifth New Hampshire resident has tested positive for COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus.
11 others are being tested and over 200 people are being monitored for symptoms.
With the number of coronavirus cases likely to grow in New Hampshire, NHPR's Rick Ganley spoke with Governor Chris Sununu to tell learn more about how the state is preparing.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
Rick Ganley: I want to get right into it here. The most recent case of COVID-19, the coronavirus, is a man from Rockingham County. He was identified by the state of Massachusetts as someone who came in contact with someone in another state. How is New Hampshire coordinating with the other states when it comes to the virus?
Chris Sununu: Well, very closely, frankly. I mean, last night I was on a call with governors from all over the country just talking about, first, best practices, what they're seeing out there and looking at everything, from some of the modelling and studies that they're seeing. So whether it's the governors working together, working with the federal delegation, the folks in Washington. I think there's actually a lot of very good coordination. The information is flowing.
Obviously, it's very new, right? We haven't had this before. So the true contagion level, how contagious it really is, the impact level to different populations, all this is very, very new. But the information does flow. And it's really our job here -- I call it operationalize -- how do you take that information and make sure at a very localized level, folks know what to do, how to prepare, who to call and making sure that they know how to react as this potentially may hit their community.
Rick Ganley: So you want to keep the communication lines open. But I know like in Massachusetts, of course, Gov. Baker has declared a state of emergency. Other states are doing that as well. Is that something you would see in the future?
Chris Sununu: Nothing I see right now, to be honest. I can't speak for other states. Here in New Hampshire, a state of emergency allows the governor to access certain public funds and an emergency funding. That's one of the most powerful things it does. Funding is not really the issue right now. The federal government has provided an initial $5 million. My guess is there could be more money coming for reimbursement of a lot of our mitigation costs.
So that's not the issue right now. So we don't want to just heighten the level just for the sake of heightening the level, right? This is definitely not a time to panic. We have good folks on the ground. We're at the point where we can still deal with everything on a case-by-case basis and reach out to the contacts. We're asking folks to self-quarantine as we find those contacts. And again, it's really about spreading out that potential impact to the community, and that's all part of the mitigation plan going into effect.
Rick Ganley: Currently, New Hampshire doesn't provide paid sick time for part-time state workers. And I know full time state employees can't go into negative sick time. Your office told NHPR last night that the state is exploring other options to ensure that state employees do remain safe and healthy. What can you do and how fair are those policies, given that state advisories say that people should stay home for 14 days if they do come in contact with some with the coronavirus?
Chris Sununu: Look, asking someone to stay home and not go to work for 14 days is tough. It's a big ask to be sure. We're talking to the Department of Employment Security. We're looking at the Department of Labor. A bunch of different folks are kind of looking at what options we might have, whether they be state funds, opportunity for federal funds. We are just looking for whatever flexibility. However these folks can truly work from home that makes it easier. If employers could be flexible, that makes it easier.
But really, the impact to an individual's paycheck, that's huge. I mean, some people are living paycheck to paycheck. They've got to pay the rent. So we're looking at a lot of different options. We want to put the best idea on the table. We have a few different ideas, but I think in the next week or so, you'll see something come out where we're at least providing some opportunity for those most in need.
Rick Ganley: Can you give us an idea of what that might look like?
Chris Sununu: No, I really can't. Only in that, I mean again, it could be anything from opening up some type of unemployment compensation. I don't know if there are federal rules that don't necessarily allow that. But maybe there's something that could be set up temporarily in the state.
The good news is, is that when you go on quarantine or God forbid, you should even get the virus, it's about a two week period, right? Either you're going to have the flu for a couple of weeks. You're going to be off for a couple of weeks. It's not months, and months and months. So it is something that is very likely manageable from a financial standpoint. It's just about finding out about where the funds might come from, what flexibilities we have, how what we want to do might interfere with federal regulation. (Editor's note: COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus, not an influenza (flu) virus. Symptoms of COVID-19 range from mild to severe and can be fatal. Find more info from the CDC here.)
A lot of those things are being worked out. And we're actually, we're looking to the federal government as well to maybe provide match funding or really get involved with the opportunity to fund some of these things. I mean, they were looking at billions and billions of dollars out of the federal government. Can some of those funds be flexed to offset some of type of either unemployment payment or rent payment or something like that? So there's a couple different ways to do it. We just want to make sure whatever we do, we we get it right and it's something that can be sustained.
Rick Ganley: One frustration, Governor, we've been hearing from listeners has been a lack of information at the town level. How is the state communicating with individual towns both, you know, giving town officials information and getting feedback on what's happening on the local level?
Chris Sununu: So we have multiple calls a week, and we actually even have a daily call now that goes. So every school superintendent is on the call with our epidemiologist, Dr. [Benjamin] Chan, the head of public health, Lisa Morris, myself and others, we have a call with every single emergency management coordinator, which in most towns, their public health coordinator as well. They handle everything from snowstorms to major events. This is a very major event. So, again, we're using them and asking the local towns to go through them in terms of the information. They know how to coordinate and how the state coordinates resources, from both a federal and state level, all the way down to the localized level. They have that infrastructure in place, and so we're using them as well.
You know, we're meeting with folks that run long term care facilities. We're meeting with folks that run very large businesses. Think of a large manufacturer that might have hundreds of people on the floor of a manufacturing plant. We're meeting with them to talk about best practices and how to mitigate what to do if and when, what quarantine really means. You know, I was on the phone late last night with the folks in the university system, because obviously there's the impact of spring break coming up and the idea that students are going to travel abroad potentially, and then come back and how that will impact us.
So the communication is really there. I think one of the frustrations people have is if someone gets coronavirus in their community or their county, they won't tell us who it is and where they live and what they do for a living, and who they've come in contact with. We cannot do that, right. There are very strict laws and rules around that. You cannot identify a person's health condition in a public way like that. So I think some folks are frustrated because this is such an amped up and heightened issue, as it should be. But there's also a privacy issue because these are health issues with individuals. So you have to be very careful not just identifying the person by name, but indirectly identifying them.
Well, this person I can't tell you what his name is, but I can tell you he lives here and works there. Well, everyone's going to figure it out. So that's one of the barriers of frustration. And I can appreciate that. But we have to be very careful to make sure that the community understands what's going on, the potential impact. And then again, at the state level, we're working on those individual contacts that we're allowed to make to make sure our folks are either quarantined or they know what's happening or what may have happened in a situation that they were previously.
Rick Ganley: Right. I know senior care facilities are obviously a big place of concern. What are you doing to make sure that senior care facilities are are following best practices?
Chris Sununu: Well I mean, it's really one of the number one concerns. We saw what happened up in Seattle. We know that this affects the elderly much more than it affects the young people. And you have potential death rate, what we're hearing is 15 percent and above for 80-year-olds and above. So we're working with them in a very direct way in terms of both planning strategies, in terms of what happens if you find a person with COVID-19, with their access to testing. You know, the state can provide testing for folks that need testing that, again, are exhibiting symptoms that have been potentially in contact with somebody with coronavirus.
We're there to provide that testing, and obviously we're going to make sure that if we can get it commercialized, we're trying to get the federal government to commercialize these tests a little quicker. That'll open up the opportunity to respond quicker, especially in a long term care facility. If we can get a few of the hospitals to actually be able to get the tests and provide them.
Rick Ganley: I know yesterday you announced that people with private insurance or Medicaid and Medicare won't have to pay for coronavirus testing. Your administration has said the state is working with the federal government to help cover people who don't have insurance. How could that work?
Chris Sununu: Well, again, the federal government is providing a lot of funds. They're offering billions of dollars, and my guess is they could do more down the road. But right now we have access to $5 million that can be used to offset our costs. And again, our costs being the cost potentially to the individuals who are requiring the test.
So we have an initial round of funding that's there. We imagine more money will be coming in. And again, we just want to make sure that people that need the tests, just because you don't have the insurance, or the income or whatever it is, if you're in need of a test, we're going to make sure that it's there for you.
Rick Ganley: Governor, are there enough test kits available, though? I'm thinking down the line is as this virus spreads, there simply won't be enough resources to test everyone.
Chris Sununu: Well, right now there are. That's the good news. We have a few hundred kits here in the state and we have a backlog, if you will. Down the road if this were to keep not just existing, but actually growing as a potential contagion within the community, there is a concern of everything from the number of kits, the number of what they call N95, the masks, the personal protective equipment we want our health care workers to have access to. The logistics and the supply chain in those items especially, is a real great concern. I feel fairly confident, and we've heard the federal government, that a lot of the kits will be made available and more commercially available just in the coming weeks, which is good news. Because I think we feel pretty confident we'll be able to manage our testing ability all the way to the point where it really starts ramping up in production.
Again, the [personal protective equipment] is still of a bit of concern. We have manufacturers right here in the state that that make that type of [equipment]. They do a great job of it. As soon as they make it, it's off the shelf. They have a backlog of orders. So I'm making sure the state has a backlog. The hospitals have a backlog and the supply chain is going to be healthy as we hit kind of the peak of this, which we're probably not even in the peak of it, right? We're talking about it every day, sometimes every hour. But the peak of this could be May, June, July, something like that. It transmits itself more as a common cold. It's more in that type of family. So that's why it's so contagious. People get colds in the summer, but virtually every American gets a cold every year. So that's kind of the fear there. (Editor's note: COVID-19 spreads mainly between people who come into close contact (within about six feet). Read more about COVID-19 spreads here.)
Rick Ganley: [There are] longer term implications here. This is a marathon, not a sprint, as they say.
Chris Sununu: That's absolutely right. And that's why we don't want to panic. We don't want to just jump and declare states of emergency and all this. We're not there yet. We don't have to be there. So we're not going to be there. This is something we can truly manage. And again, the more we get information to what needs to be, people, I think, understand the process and the protocols, the risk. And we're doing it in a cautious way. Once you close something, once you make these very large, drastic actions, how do you go back from it down the road if you're still dealing with the issue? So I'm trying to be very cautious about making grandiose gestures unless we know truly what the metrics are going to be to back us out of that so we can get back to kind of a normal life.
I think international travel, even national travel, will be greatly impacted. Travel and tourism is going to be impacted over the next few months economically, maybe not in New Hampshire as much but it's the Disney Worlds, right? It's the large travel and tourist destinations that rely on more international travelers. We don't rely on that as much here in New Hampshire, but they're going to be impacted. And that's going to have a real economic impact that will undoubtedly be some type of slowdown and folks need to be prepared for that.