The coronavirus pandemic continues to extend its reach across New Hampshire, touching the state’s hospitals, nursing homes, political circles, jails, and nearly every aspect of daily life for residents.
Health officials announced 695 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday. While that was on the low end of daily case tallies in recent days, the state also saw its largest single-day death count in more than seven months Thursday, with 14 people dying from the coronavirus. Thirteen of those deaths came in long-term care facilities, which have suffered the worst impacts of the pandemic in New Hampshire.
A record 248 people were hospitalized in the state with the virus as of Thursday. State epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan said healthcare facilities are being stretched as a result of rising caseloads and a shortage of staff, and urged residents to take responsibility for helping limit the spread of the virus.
“We know that community transmission continues to increase,” Chan said at a Concord press conference. “And without a high level of compliance for mask use, social distancing, avoiding travel, especially around the holidays, our rates of community transmission will likely increase."
In addition to rising death counts and hospitalizations, health officials announced 14 new COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes and institutional settings, including at the state men’s prison, where 23 inmates and 17 staff have reportedly tested positive.
The Merrimack County Jail in Boscawen is also now dealing with a coronavirus outbreak. Officials there said Thursday that there are at least 19 presumptive positive cases among inmates, and four among staff. About half of inmates are in quarantine due to possible exposure.
Jail officials said the first cases were detected a week ago. COVID-19 testing is voluntary for inmates and staff, but tests are being offered regularly to both groups. The jail anticipates more confirmed cases as it continues testing this week.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton continues to manage an outbreak of COVID-19 among its ranks. The number of positive cases has grown to 87 residents and 81 staff members. Twenty-seven residents have died from the coronavirus.
Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday that staff from the federal Veterans Administration have agreed to stay longer to help with staffing shortages caused by mandatory quarantining.
"The National Guard has stepped up,” Sununu said. “They're providing more of the administrative services there, so more of the full time staff can be on the front lines. So it really has been an all-hands-on-deck approach."
Despite that assistance, the Veterans Home has made several public calls in recent days for staffing help across several positions, including nursing, security and maintenance.
Hospitals across the state are keeping a wary eye on their available beds and staffing levels, as hospitalizations continue a steady increase. During the first COVID-19 surge in the spring, the state readied external hospital surge sites in gymnasiums and schools. Those have still not been used.
State Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette said Thursday that hospitals are still doing as much as they can internally, before using external sites. She said all hospitals have internal surge plans and regional transfer plans if their patient volume becomes too heavy.
"Some of those things are happening right now, and it’s really the best way to use our entire capacity statewide rather than just a local capacity,” she said. “We're really looking at it as a statewide system rather than just a small regional system.”
Also Thursday, the state medical examiner confirmed that House Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19 one day earlier. Hinch, a 71-year-old Republican from Merrimack, was elected speaker just a week earlier during a socially-distant outdoor meeting of lawmakers at the University of New Hampshire. Earlier that week, several Republican House members were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an indoor GOP caucus meeting where mask-wearing was allegedly infrequent.
Earlier this week, a member of Sununu’s staff tested positive for COVID-19, and an employee in the Speaker’s office also recently tested positive.
Shortly after Hinch’s autopsy results were made public, Acting House Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse said they were committed to protecting the heath of lawmakers and State House staff.
“It is our responsibility to ensure COVID-19 incident notification and transparency,” they said in a statement.
The House will convene in January to vote on Hinch’s successor.
As an FDA advisory panel gave its approval to a COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, New Hampshire's immunization registry is finally up and running. New Hampshire was the last state in the nation to establish such a registry. The database connects and shares immunization information across health care providers, health departments, schools and hospitals. It will help providers track the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, and notify people when it's time to get their second dose.
If it receives final FDA approval, the Pfizer vaccine could arrive for New Hampshire's most vulnerable populations by next week. Front-line health workers and residents of long-term care facilities will be among the first to receive the vaccine.