Weekly N.H. News Roundup: March 20, 2020

Mar 20, 2020

Friday on The Exchange, it's the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup, and we'll take stock of a week when the coronavirus pandemic life changed for so many in the Granite State. Schools shut down, restaurants closed, and large gatherings banned. We'll examine changes to the state's unemployment benefits, the capacity for testing COVID-19, and the roll out of remote learning plans. 

GUESTS:

  • Sarah Gibson - NHPR education reporter
  • Jason Moon - NHPR health care reporter

The Unemployment Assistance Hotline number is 603-271-7700

 

Transcript

  This transcript was machine-generated and will contain errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy. And this is The Exchange. It's the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup today on The Exchange. And what a week it's been. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state rose every day as testing capacity increased. But health officials say they still face structural problems in getting more Granite Staters tested. Also, the governor announced new measures to ease the economic pain of this crisis while the number of people applying for unemployment benefits surged to unprecedented levels. And that's where we're start our conversation today as we're joined by Rich Lavers. He's deputy commissioner of employment security. And Mr. Lavers, welcome to The Exchange. Really happy to have you.

Rich Lavers:
Good morning, Laura. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with your listeners.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and I also want to let listeners know that you can join us, too, especially now as we're talking with the deputy commissioner of employment security about this new unemployment insurance benefit. And Mr. Lavers, boy, we've been hearing from listeners every day about the economic impacts of Coronavirus. I want to read just a little bit from a note we got from Devin, who filled out our survey. Devin says, How will those of us who are already living paycheck to paycheck, a single parent even, pay bills while unable to work. Devin says, I know there is an action plan in place to assist, such as unemployment benefits. How will this work? He asks. Will we be paid only a percentage of our usual pay or the normal amount or none at all? How long would that take to be in effect? And Devin, thank you for writing. He asks a couple questions I wanted to cover with you. First, this question about how will this work? I think it's a really important one. So could you just remind us, please, Mr. Lavers, how did it used to work up until just recently? How did somebody go about becoming eligible for unemployment benefits?

Rich Lavers:
And that's a great question, Laura. So I think the key here is that we're taking advantage of the existing unemployment compensation system. So with Governor Sununu's swift and aggressive action that he took on Tuesday through his executive order to dramatically increase the eligibility or the number of people that are now eligible to file for unemployment benefits because of COVID-19 and a reduction in their hours or a complete loss of hours, it is key to point out that we're able to respond so quickly because we're utilizing an existing system. So whereas before COVID-19 individuals that experienced a temporary layoff or a permanent layoff, as long as that separation from employment was through no fault of their own, they were able to come into employment security, file their application for benefits online. We do a process to confirm that they are eligible and then we determine what their weekly benefit amount is going to be. Now, what we're doing and trying to build awareness is that for individuals that either see a reduction in hours or they have a complete loss of employment with their jobs being eliminated, they're able to come in and apply for those same benefits. So really, any type of job loss scenario related to COVID-19, whether it be an individual who is sick or quarantined and important here, Laura, is that that includes self quarantined individuals.So you don't need to have been quarantined by a physician or a government official or your employer. Those folks that are self quarantining are eligible for unemployment benefits. And again, the governor really wanted to remove financial barriers from effective quarantining. And this was one of those key ways of doing that was to dramatically increase eligibility. So it also includes individuals that might find themselves needing to leave work, reduced hours because they need to care for a family member because of COVID-19 or to care for a child that is now home because their schools are closed or daycare facilities are closed. So if individuals in all those situations are now eligible for unemployment benefits. Importantly, the governor also made sure to go ahead and to temporarily suspend the waiting week here in New Hampshire so that individuals can access those benefits right away with their first week of reduced hours or elimination of their employment. And that's that's important. You know, New Hampshire, like 40 other states, we had a waiting week where individuals first their first week of unemployment was not a payable week. And then that second week would have been their first payroll week. So that has been temporarily suspended for all the blame child and from before.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, it sounds like another change is if you can't work because you've got a couple of kids home from school, that's another way that you can access unemployment. And that sounds like a change from before, Mr. Lavers. Is that correct?

Rich Lavers:
And that that's that's a dramatic change that I really can't stress enough, it's it's not a type of situation that unemployment compensation systems have traditionally been asked to handle.

Laura Knoy:
So we've heard from many listeners, Deputy Commissioner Lavers, that filing online has been very difficult. The site is glitchy, one person told me, or slow or hasn't been working or someone else told me it's been difficult to navigate. How prepared were you at employment security to handle this surge in use?

Rich Lavers:
You know, the department was on top of this from the very beginning. We worked with Governor Sununu to expand eligibility. The governor was very clear on how broad he wanted this eligibility to be expanded, to include really everyone impacted by COVID-19. And now we're responding to some volume, both in our call center that the governor created and on our Web site that is just simply unprecedented. Fortunately for people here in New Hampshire, New Hampshire's Web site for our claim filing process, we're still up and running. We've been up and running all week. Most states in the country, Laura, cannot make that claim right now. You read some of the national media in states across the country. Their Web sites for their claim, filing applications have been crashing constantly. We've experienced some speed issues and folks are frustrated. I understand that. I appreciate that. I've been constantly testing. Our system is kind of a secret shopper all week to make sure I'm getting good information with the with the folks that I talk with to see how is that speed for me to get through the system, for me to file a claim, because I want to make sure we're addressing that as quickly as we possibly can. And a lot of credit here, Laura, to the dedicated employees here at the Department of Employment Security and our our Department of Information Technology. I can't say enough for the work that these folks are doing. And really, you know, this is not their first crisis that they've dealt with from an unemployment perspective. The staff here at the department, they were here during the Great Recession, obviously the Great Recession in terms of how that gradually built up from an unemployment perspective, much different than what we're seeing now.

Laura Knoy:
Sure, a slower buildup up. This has been immediate. Yeah, go ahead.

Rich Lavers:
And it's kind of like each economic downturn. They're kind of like snowflakes. Laura, where each one is different and the spike in unemployment that we're experiencing here is unlike anything New Hampshire has ever seen. And I hope will ever see again. What we are seeing, though, in terms of our improvements in our response rate with individuals is that we continue to tweak the system so that we are continuously improving performance. And what we saw with all of these efforts was that yesterday afternoon, after some fixing some performance related issues in the morning, we had about an 80 percent success rate on our Web site for individuals that were coming on the Web site from about noontime on, 80 percent of those individuals that came on were able to successfully register and get that claim filing process moving forward. So that's a great improvement. We continue to look at that. We continue to make performance improvements. We're making them right now. We have outside vendors that are involved that support the system. We have internal I.T. staff and program staff that are constantly on this. And an incredibly important is we have our staff throughout the state that although our offices are closed to the public. Our staff are still reporting to their offices, all of their New Hampshire works offices throughout the state. And they are they're processing claims. They are they're handling questions that are coming into the call center. That call center has seen the traffic and the number of calls they've received in the three days since it was created. About ten thousand five hundred calls into that call center on average. Wait time at that call center has been about nine minutes.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Sorry to interrupt. So your employees, Deputy Commissioner Lavers, are reporting to work, but your offices are closed to the public.

Rich Lavers:
Exactly.

Laura Knoy:
Is that correct?

Rich Lavers:
You know, we've tried to get the word out to folks. I hope folks understand why we need to do that. You know, the folks my folks that I have here that work for the department that have experienced and have been trained in processing claims, though, they are a very, very highly valuable commodity right now. I can't afford to lose folks that have that level of training. So that was the reason why we had to close our offices. We did that in coordination with the Governor's office right away because we wanted to make sure that while we were being mindful of accessibility and for the public to be able to file, we need to balance that with making sure that our staff are safe and healthy and that they're going to continue to be here in the months ahead where we're dealing with this issue so that we can make sure that these critical resources that the governor has put in place with his executive order, that we continue to make sure we can process these claims timely. And we can get these we can get these benefit payments out to folks in the community. So, again, some of that financial pressure that people are starting to experience. To the extent that their unemployment benefits can help with that, we want to make sure that money is available to them.

Laura Knoy:
All right. And Deputy Commissioner Lavers, we're getting some questions from our listeners. So I do want to bring them into our conversation again today in The Exchange. It's the weekly New Hampshire news roundup. And we're discussing several items related to the coronavirus here in the Granite State, including right now we're talking about unemployment assistance for those who've lost their jobs due to the virus. A little bit later, we'll talk about transmission, how that is changing and how the state schools are stepping up and getting ready for a whole new era of remote learning. And for the next 10 minutes or so, we are talking with Rich Lavers. He's deputy commissioner of employment security. And here's an e-mail from Susan. Mr. Lavers, Susan says, I have been told by friends that the phone lines are busy and online filing crashes due to numbers attempting to file. How can we get to file? You addressed this earlier. Susan, thank you for the e-mail. You address this earlier Deputy Commissioner Lavers. But it sounds like 80 percent, as you said, are getting through. But a decent number of people are still having a hard time.

Rich Lavers:
They they are. And, you know, although I put some emphasis on that, 80 percent of people that were successful able to register, our focus really is on that other 20 percent. Laura, we want to make sure that as soon as possible we can get up to 100 percent success rate for individuals not only being able to go on the system and complete that registration, but also to be able to do it in a timely fashion and not have to experience any delays or get timed out or have to keep on coming back to that Web site, like in the old days of dial up where people were used to and you know, where we've become accustomed to pretty fast Internet speeds. We want to make sure our Web site performs well. What we've been seeing for volume for for new individuals registering on our system right now and filing claims over from Tuesday from when the governor announced his order creating eligibility. We've had fifteen thousand seven hundred people register in those three days. So those are new users of the unemployment system. In terms of claims, we've seen over 16000 new claims filed in three days. I expect that for this week and in the initial claims for unemployment being experienced this week, those initial claims need to get in by this coming Saturday. So tomorrow, I expect that will probably be upwards of 25000 new claims for this week. And to put that into perspective, Laura, you know, looking back in recent history, that is about five times the volume that we saw for our highest week during the during the last recession.

Laura Knoy:
And it's a surge too, it's all at once. I mean, really, things have come crashing down just in a matter of weeks. And I appreciate what you say about wanting to move quickly. Here's a note that we got from our survey from Sarah in New London who says, I will have enough money to eat and pay my bills from maybe one to two weeks unless I get unemployment. Sarah says this is going to put the most economically vulnerable people in a really tough spot. Thank you for writing in, Sarah, and good luck to you. Let's take a call. This is Jillian in Warner. Hi, Jillian. You're on The Exchange. Welcome.

Caller:
Hello.

Laura Knoy:
Go ahead, Jillian.

Caller:
Thank you. So I know in the normal process you would have to reapply every week and show that you're actively looking for work during this time. What's the process going to be? Because your company has shut down because of the coronavirus.

Rich Lavers:
So that number.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Yeah. Go ahead, Jillian. I mean, go ahead. Mr. Lavers.

Rich Lavers:
Yeah. So that's a great point. And and obviously right now, considering the nature of why we have the spike in unemployment and what we're being asked to do by our healthcare professionals and and not interacting with individuals and certainly not actively searching for work, we're waiving that requirement. So individuals that are coming in, that are registering in the system and they have a COVID-19 related separation from employment can just be a reduction in hours too Laura doesn't have to be a complete elimination. But we're simply asking them some questions about their intentions of returning to work once this crisis is over and those individuals will not, and let me repeat, will not be required to search for work. So that's very important. It's going to help us streamline and streamline and simplify the process going forward for getting these individuals paid and to to jump back too, I think the point made by the prior email with Sarah and wanting and wanting to stress the importance of folks that are living paycheck to paycheck and how important timely receipt of these benefits is right now for folks that go into and register in the system from that time of registering and filing that new claim from which we determine eligibility, that folks that then go in and file their their continued claims, they should expect payment within about eight days of when they when they filed that new claim. So for folks that are filing this week that they registered in the system, they got that new claim filed. They're going to go in on starting this Sunday and be able to file an additional claim for their first week of unemployment. They can start that Sunday and go all the way through the next Saturday. And then from that time of their initial claim, it should be about eight days that they should expect to receive that first payment. Most folks do set up direct deposit for their services to waive their effort to come in the mail. Yeah. Yeah. And so that is obviously incredibly important for making this as efficient as possible. So setting that up, getting that direct deposited into their accounts should should be expecting about eight days from that initial claim and then each week. So for each week, individuals can starting on that Sunday. They can then file the claim that we call a continued claim. But that's the claim that triggers payment. And then that would be for the prior weeks that they experienced the reduction in hours or loss of employment.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and thank you so much for the question, Jillian. It's an important one. And Jake has an e-mail which sounds similar, but I'd like to share it with you. Jake says, My wife works in the home cleaning business and her hours have taken a hit. The company isn't entirely closing down, Jake says, and will eventually go back to normal. Jake asks, does she have to be actively looking for a new job like you normally would to be eligible for help? And Jake, thank you for writing in.

Rich Lavers:
Yeah. So again, that the answer to that question law is no, she does not need to be actively looking for work. The U.S. Department of Labor is being very flexible with states because although the unemployment program is administered at the state level by employment security, it is a national program. Right. The unemployment program exists in all states. So we have some requirements from the federal government that we need to comply with. Ordinarily, that requirement would be that individuals are able and available and actively seeking work while they are collecting their unemployment benefit. We are able through that flexibility that we're receiving because of COVID-19. We're able to look at job attachment differently because of the crisis. So as long as individuals intend to return to work when the crisis is over, there are no requirements to search for work while they are filing. While this order is in effect than we have this expanded eligibility.

Laura Knoy:
Crystal in New Boston wrote us, she says, How do these extensions on unemployment impact contract or temporary workers who are typically not eligible? Crystal, thank you. And Deputy Commissioner Lavers, can you answer that question?

Rich Lavers:
I can. So part of the expanded eligibility that the governor put out on Tuesday includes self-employed. It includes business owners. It includes public school teachers, it includes private school teachers. So a lot of groups that previously under regular unemployment compensation would not have been eligible to file are now eligible. So let's start with the self-employed. So if you know, New Hampshire is a small business state, we knew and the governor wanted to stress the importance of making sure these benefits were available for as many people as possible. So we are now able to look at the folks that are self-employed. They are now eligible just to like someone who has regular W-2 employment. So they're eligible public school teachers who normally wouldn't be able to file during vacation periods or during in between educational terms are now able to file private school teachers who ordinarily would not have been eligible to file are now eligible to file in. All of that is because of the swift and aggressive action that Governor Sununu took Tuesday of this week.

Laura Knoy:
Nancy sent us an email as well. Can her granddaughter, who is a college student and who lost her restaurant job, file for unemployment? I've heard lots of stories like these, Deputy Commissioner Lavers, of college students who had part time jobs to help pay the bills. But those are just out the window.

Rich Lavers:
Yeah. And so in that situation as well, that individual is eligible to file for benefits going forward as we, you know, operate under the new executive order from the governor.

Laura Knoy:
Okay. Well, a couple last questions for you, Mr. Lavers, and I really appreciate your time. Lots of people clearly have questions about how this is going to work. Where does the money in the unemployment trust fund come from?

Rich Lavers:
That is always that is a great question, Laura, because we do forget about how some of these programs are funded. And in New Hampshire, our trust fund, which right now is at $300 million, is completely funded by New Hampshire businesses. So New Hampshire businesses pay into that fund on a quarterly basis. And depending on what their experience has been with the unemployment system, that determines what their rate they pay on the first fourteen thousand dollars in annual wages per employee. So businesses pay into that fund. Right now, that's at about $300 million. Folks are obviously concerned about the solvency of that fund.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.

Rich Lavers:
What I can tell you is that we are constantly stress testing that fund to see what it can handle, how long it can continue to pay benefits. But what we do know is U.S. Department of Labor comes out with an annual measure where they independently evaluate each state's unemployment compensation trust fund. They completed that most recent evaluation in February of this year in New Hampshire, along with 30 other states, is considered by the U.S. Department of Labor to have a solvent fund. And they determined that by looking at your worst benefit years that you've had over the last 20. They look at what your current wages are across the state because they want to assess risk. We are an insurance program, so risk is very important. So they assess it. They've determined that we're eligible are that we're solvent. So we are in a very strong position going forward. And that's why we're able to handle the crisis like we're doing. That's why we are able to talk about expanded eligibility. And the governor was able to expand eligibility as dramatically as he has done. And that is because we have such a solvent, solid trust fund. That being said, with benefit levels as high as what we're seeing this week, you know, with new claims at five times the rate of a week that we saw during the Great Recession. That is going to be something that is not going to be sustainable over the long over the long run. That's why we're looking at really hoping that the federal government passes a disaster unemployment assistance program so that can start to pay for some of these benefits. We're also very glad to see that in the initial bill that that was passed out of Congress, that they did make borrowing overall available to states that run out of money in the trust fund. They've made that available interest free through the course of the calendar year. So the federal government is making some resources available. New Hampshire starts this in an incredibly strong position. That's because of four years of unemployment under 3 percent. One of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But we're going to need the federal government to come in and help. We're confident that they will and we're confident that we'll get some form of disaster unemployment assistance.

Laura Knoy:
So keeping an eye on the solvency, given the incredible spike in demand that you're seeing. One last quick question for you, Mr. Lavers, then I know we need to let you go. Mark in Rochester writes in, He says, I applied online. It said successfully completed, but I received no e-mail confirmation. I followed up with a call and the person said I'd receive a callback. Should I start over from scratch? Mark wonders. I can understand his anxiety. You know, you file, you hit submit, and then you just want to know that everything is OK.

Rich Lavers:
Yeah. And so right now with the call center and the calls that are coming in there, Mark will get a callback. They will confirm his status in terms of was that registration and initial claim successful? And then they'll be able to answer his questions about getting that additional claim filed that will trigger payment. So I do ask for Mark and others, you know, if they're not able to get through right away on that call center, we're seeing incredible volume over there, Laura. We really are. And it's not only employment security staff at this call center. I have staff over there from the New Hampshire Department of Labor. I have from the Revenue Administration, from lottery, from all sorts of agencies that are helping us out, that are coming over to man this call center. And it's being run out of homeland security and emergency management. They couldn't be better at handling these types of situations. So we have we do have a small wait time right now with folks trying to get through. I'd ask people that, you know, if we're looking at wait times of usually in the early part of the day, four to five minutes, if they could be patient with us, they will get a live person. And then folks that want to go directly to the Web site to file their claim. We have improved the performance of that system dramatically. And we're really working around the clock, including through the weekend with staff who will be working all day Saturday, all day Sunday, not only to continue to improve performance of the system, but they are going to be processing claims as quickly as they can, because as the governor has instilled in us, it is incredibly important not to just to create the eligibility, but they get the benefits out the door to folks so they have these resources right away.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Mark, I hope that's helpful. And thank you for writing in. We've been hearing from a lot of you as this coronavirus crisis has arisen and it's been good to hear from you and your comments are helping to shape our coverage. So I really encourage people to fill out that survey for now. Rich Lavers, we will let you go. We really appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

Rich Lavers:
Thank you, Laura. And take care.

Laura Knoy:
That's Rich Lavers, deputy commissioner of Employment Security. Coming up, more of the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup. We will talk with NHPR's health reporter and our education reporter. They'll have updates on the coronavirus's impact on our state. So stay with us. This is the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. It's the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup today. And with me now to update both the health and educational aspects of the coronaviruses impact on New Hampshire, are NHPR's Jason Moon and Sarah Gibson. And let's get your questions in as well for Jason on the evolving health picture and for Sarah, in terms of how schools are adapting. And Jason Moon, thank you for helping us out. We really appreciate it.

Jason Moon:
Good morning, Laura.

Laura Knoy:
And Sarah Gibson, thank you as well. It's been a busy week.

Sarah Gibson:
You're welcome.

Laura Knoy:
So, Jason, you first. What do we know now about transmission of this virus? It seems every day the numbers go up.

Jason Moon:
Yes, unfortunately, that that is accurate. If you look at where we started this week, on Monday, there was a 17 folks in New Hampshire who had tested positive for the virus. By yesterday, that number was up to 44. So we're seeing a pretty steady increase in the number of positive cases in New Hampshire. And what's more is that a growing number of those cases are people who didn't have risk factors associated with travel or they weren't known to have come into contact with another confirmed case. So what that signals to public health officials and what they're saying now is that there is community transmission ongoing, you know, across New Hampshire, that there are people getting the virus who who didn't just get off a plane from Italy. And that signals that the virus is currently spreading in our communities right now in New Hampshire. You know, the number of known cases is still relatively low at 44. When you compare it to some of the other hotspots around the country. But that's also a function of the fact that we haven't done, you know, a huge number of tests here. The testing is beginning to ramp up. But, you know, at current, the state has tested about fourteen hundred people, some several dozen.

Laura Knoy:
Sound like a lot, Jason. Yeah. You stated 1.3 million.

Jason Moon:
That is an excellent point. It's it's it's more than a week ago, which was about, you know, a couple hundred people so that the rate of testing is ramping up. But yes, exactly that. What we're kind of looking through a keyhole here at the spread of the virus in New Hampshire. And so the number of cases confirmed is it's a it's a very imperfect measure of of the actual spread of the virus, given that we can't just give every single person in the state a test tomorrow, as as great as that would be, that's just not possible at this point.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And state epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan talked a lot about that at a big press conference yesterday with the governor, top economic officials. I want to play a little bit from that press conference. Here's Dr. Chan talking about what you mentioned, Jason, that the state is now seeing some cases of COVID-19 where those infected had no risk factors such as recent travel or exposure to others. Let's play that second clip that we have of Dr. Chan.

News clip:
And that obviously raises the concern that there is some amount of community based transmission that is currently occurring in a number of counties throughout the state. I do want to stress, however, that we have done quite extensive testing over the last week throughout the state and a pretty low percentage of those tests have come back with COVID-19. We continue to do our public health investigations and to diagnose people with COVID-19 so that we can rapidly identify people that may have been exposed to get them under quarantine so that if they do develop symptoms, they are not within the community imposing a risk to individuals.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and as you said earlier, Jason, we're sort of looking through a keyhole at this because testing has still been so limited and we have received so many questions about this from listeners, stories of frustrations of people. They have symptoms. They are worried they won't know what to do, but they can't get tested. Dr. Chan talked a lot yesterday, Jason, about the roadblocks that are preventing widespread testing from taking place. What are those roadblocks, Jason?

Jason Moon:
Yeah, and that's it's a great question because it's actually change that the factors that are limiting the number of tests in New Hampshire are evolving as this unfolds. So initially it was a shortage of tests that were available from the CDC. And that's because those were the only tests available in the U.S. to to to test for COVID-19. Now, there's commercial tests available through some of the national reference laboratories like Quest Labs and LabCorp. And those can be performed by health care providers, you know, without without the involvement of the state. But a sort of new bottleneck that we are hearing about is a simple lack in the supplies needed to take the samples from patients. So, for instance, there is a to the to take the sample for a COVID-19 tests. It involves taking a sort of a long, specialized Q-Tip and inserting it well up into the nose of the patient, taking a swab from the back of their nasal cavity and sending that off to the lab. Well, there's a shortage of of that special kind of Q-Tip right now across all providers, not just in New Hampshire, but everywhere, because it it wasn't that frequently used a tool before before this crisis. So, you know, I'm hearing from doctors who who are starting to test out of their local practices. But, you know, they only have a limited number of these of these swabs. And so they have to be really careful about who they test. You know, they can't just test every person who has symptoms that may be aligned with with coronavirus. They you know, they're sort of triaging those tests to to test people who are perhaps most vulnerable to severe illness or even death because of the virus. And and the other thing that a lot of doctors would say is that whether or not you test positive for coronavirus, for a lot of people, that is not going to change the treatment that the doctor advises you to undergo. Right. Because basically for for most in most cases, there really is no treatment, there's no drug, there's no vaccine to treat coronavirus. So if you are a young person otherwise healthy and you test positive for coronavirus, you have, you know, mild symptoms. Your doctor is going to tell you, stay at home, manage your symptoms at home. Don't leave the house. If you have mild symptoms that could be coronavirus, your doctor is going to tell you, stay at home, don't leave the home. Don't spread it to anyone else. So if you're if you're not a high risk person for for serious illness, a positive test for coronavirus for you is not really going to change what your doctor advises you to do.

Laura Knoy:
Although in this countries, Jason, yeah, in some countries like South Korea, I was reading, they are kind of testing everybody. And I read that quote from the doctor in one of your stories who said, look, you know, even if you did get a positive test for coronavirus, if you were basically healthy and younger, I wouldn't you know, you don't need to get tested. A positive test, one of the doctors you talked to said is not going to change my management of that patient. But don't, isn't there a question there, Jason, about it might change the way that person interacts with the world if that person got tested positively for COVID-19? They might send someone else to the pharmacy or the grocery store for them instead of going themselves. Do you see what I'm saying? So I guess I don't really understand that mindset.

Jason Moon:
Absolutely. I like what I think the doctors and the medical providers would say is that in a perfect world, everyone would be getting tested and we would have more perfect knowledge. But this is the best sort of that they can do because of the limitations in the number of tests. So they have a limited, limited number of tests. They're are gonna be triaging them for high risk people, not for people who are more likely to have mild symptoms.

Laura Knoy:
It's very frustrating and Sarah Gibson I have not forgotten about you. Because next week is a big week for the state's public schools. So, Jason, stay on the line. And Sarah Gibson, we will be with you after a short break.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. This hour it's the Weekly New Hampshire news roundup. And with me are Jason Moon and age peer's health reporter and Sarah Gibson, our education reporter. There is a lot to catch up on from this week. And Jason and Sarah are giving us the latest. And Sarah, I do want to turn to you. So this week, it seems to me, was kind of a an interim week for schools. Some were getting online, some were doing remote learning. Some were saying we're getting ready, but we're not ready to go yet. So just describe this week for us, if you could, please, Sarah.

Sarah Gibson:
So, yeah, as you're saying, it really varied by district. Some districts have already started about learning, Merrimack as one of those, that kind of had been ramping up, getting ready for the possibility of remote learning before the emergency school closure was announced this past Sunday. So some of those students, you know, are already figuring out what it looks like to learn from home. But most are starting on Monday. And right now, parents are hearing and possibly receiving packets or tablets or computers from the school, you know, hearing about what the plan is for. What is often kind of a hybrid. So basically some paper, a packet, some online program. And that really depends on tech access that it depends on the grade. But many, many families can expect for there to be a fair amount of online learning and then some packets either to be picked up at school or that will be sent via email.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. I'm glad you mentioned this hybrid method because on Sunday, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said that while state education officials will offer guidance to districts in putting together remote learning plans, he said local schools will have to make their own choices based on their own resources. Let's hear a little bit from Commissioner Edelblut

News clip:
The range of implementation with regard to remote instruction, we know will be quite broad. There are some districts who are up and running at a moment's notice. They are fully digitized and are able to deploy technology in ways that can engage their students. Other districts are going to be using hybrid methods of some Chromebooks and some, you know, instructional materials that will be analog and some districts may be fully analog.

Laura Knoy:
Again, that's Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut talking about the mix of remote learning styles that different districts will employ, especially this week coming on Monday. Everybody is supposed to kick this off. Sarah, what are some of the technical challenges in getting a large amount of students suddenly online?

Sarah Gibson:
Well, there are a bunch of technical challenges, and one is there have been surveys, you know, about each that many districts have have done for both students and parents to see what kind of Internet and access tech there is at home. So right now, districts are discovering a lot of students just don't have tablets or computers at home. You know, enough for, say, for kids who are now stuck to be at home with a parent who is also working from home. So a lot of districts are lending these out. And then there's also the question, even if you lend out a tablet, what happens if you just don't have the Internet at home or any at all?

Sarah Gibson:
So this is a larger digital equity issue that New Hampshire has struggled with for a while now. Our colleague Daniela Allee reported on this earlier in the week that, you know, in some areas they Comcast and Manchester is able to offer free or reduced price Internet to low income families. Maybe we'll be putting up some hot spots that works in a city with pretty good Internet access. But in towns that have just traditionally had very poor broadband access, it's really tricky for families to to connect. And I'm already hearing stories of people, you know, going to the library, which still has is closed, but still has Internet. And then getting on to a hotspot there or stories of a family in Berlin that, you know, they got their tablet delivered from the school. But then with limited providers up there, the services that had been promised for free were, in fact, not free. And it was just really hard for families to get online. So that's going to be a major challenge. I also want to note that particular challenge for career and technical school, so CTEs that are throughout New Hampshire. These are schools that often offer certification. So seniors who are about to graduate, were expecting to say, you know, have some kind of health certification to work in a nursing home or in a hospital or someone is going to have a welding degree. Those people are now trying to switch to online learning that require sometimes some very kind of high level simulation.You have to have really good Internet to be able to do that. And so some of these more intensive technical needs or technical programs that you would get online now that people are remote learning. You really do need good Internet for that. And I. Right. You know, I've talked to some people who say that's just going to be pretty impossible. So the major challenge for districts throughout the state.

Laura Knoy:
Well, we talked to, something we talked about earlier this week. We had the head of Lakes Region Community College on and she said some degrees at some point, and this relates to what you're saying, Sarah. You just have to get in there and get your hands on if you're learning how to, you know, do HVAC repair or auto repair or as you said, you know, dental hygienist training. At some point you've got to get your hands on what you're learning to do. So they were talking about actually bringing in students in small groups. This is at the community college level. So I'm glad that you raised that. One of the things that I've been impressed by is the efforts that schools have made Sarah to meet the needs of kids who get free and reduced price lunch and often breakfast. What are the different ways that schools are getting the food out? There's some pretty cool stories here. Yeah.

Sarah Gibson:
So this is something that schools really prioritized early on. They kind of said we need to deal with the basics before we even deal with this question of remote earning and how to get past students, we get to students. And for some districts, I mean, we're talking over half of the students who rely on the school for free or reduced breakfast and lunch. So a lot of districts by Tuesday and Wednesday had programs up and running. You know, they were kind of irony at the wrinkles. But we have about 50000 students across the state who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The federal program and you know, Manchester basically said we're going to employ our our buses and our bus drivers who normally would be picking up kids. We're gonna put tons of bagged lunches in those buses and then drop them off at bus stops. And then they alerted the family of, you know, what bus stop you go to to pick up your lunch. And in places like Manchester, that meets certain eligibility requirements, really, everyone under the age of 18, every child at the age of 18 is can get that free. That free lunch, other places work of transitioning this week. So they were basically having parents come and pick up, you know, outside of a school, do some curbside pick up. But they're still detailing the bus route that would allow them to deliver at home. And in some cases, you know, kids were getting in addition to their meals, it was an opportunity to make them of those deliveries that say aren't tablets or paper packets. So it really was a number one priority for a district as teachers or maybe, you know, going into the school building for the for the last time to get all the materials and really figuring out the instructional part of this, which is going to be up and running next week.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Well, again, I want to remind listeners that it's the weekly New Hampshire news roundup. And with me right now to update both the health and educational aspects of the coronavirus's impact on New Hampshire, our NHPR Jason Moon, our health reporter, and Sarah Gibson, our education reporter. Jason, back to you. Jen in Concord wrote us, How are they finding community spread cases when people are still generally unable to get tested if they don't have any known risk factors? Jen, thank you for that note. And we talked about testing a lot earlier, Jason, but you know, at Jen's e-mail shows us it's a continuing frustration for folks.

Jason Moon:
Yeah, that's a great question. And part of the answer is that the the decision for who gets tested has recently shifted from the state Public Health Department was really deciding was really the gatekeeper for who was and wasn't getting a test in the state. Now, that decision is, rests squarely on the shoulders of providers across New Hampshire. So your primary care provider, your local hospital, even if the test is going to be run through the state public health lab, the state is leaving it up to the individual providers. And the thinking there is both a) the state just simply cannot keep up with the number of people were requesting tests and and and making those individual decisions on a patient by patient basis. And the other the other reason is that they they think it's it's just more appropriate for a doctor who's who's actually who has the patient's medical history, who who's perhaps done an in-person evaluation. They should be making that decision. And so basically, you know, doctors across the state are making really tough choices right now about how to deploy the limited number of tests they have, you know, early. You referenced the doctor in Concord who was in one of my recent stories. He said he had nine of those special swabs. He needed to take samples. When we when we spoke, I think it was last and earlier this week, he called me yesterday. He's now down to four. So he's got to decide, you know, do I hang on to those four? Right. You know, for for perhaps another patient who might be really at high risk or should he use those now for his patients who who are who just want to know if if if they have it? And so it's a tough situation for everyone involved.

Jason Moon:
And I would mention the other real barrier to getting more tests out in the field is not only to the special swab that's needed, but it's the personal protective equipment which we've been hearing so much about, you know, the shortages of masks and eye shields and gloves and gowns, because, you know, one of the most high risk things, high risk situations you can put yourself in into to catch the Coronavirus is to test someone for it. I mean, you are, you know, basically, putting putting your body, your hand, right in someone's, you know, closed space, you know, into their nasal cavity. So doctors are we really are trying to be incredibly careful about how they take these samples. A lot of them are doing it in the parking lots of their practice. You know, they don't even want these patients to come inside the building because they're also concerned about having the virus spread to other patients. You know, in the waiting room or other people who who might be at high risk. So, yeah, it's a tough choice that a lot of doctors are struggling to to make right now. Who gets a test? And, you know, can we can they rely on getting more of the supplies they need down the line? That's just there's a big question mark around that. Still at this point.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And I have another question for you, Jason, then, Sarah, another question for you, too, about sort of this big kick off next week for education. But Carl in Dover writes, Jason pointing out several new developments, such as I pronounce this right, chloroquine, which is starting to be used to suppress the pneumonia like symptoms, Carl says. He also says there are other promising tests going on. But in short, knowing it is covid-19 may well be important knowing meaning getting the test. And this may not be relevant to most cases. Now, there's a lot going on, Jason. And I just wonder if you have any sense of sort of the the prest of research for a vaccine or at least for something that will help reduce these pneumonia like symptoms, which are, you know what, end up killing people?

Jason Moon:
Yes. Yeah. That those it's all it's full speed ahead on all of those fronts, as I understand it. Not only the the search for a vaccine, of course, but there's clinical trials underway for some anti-viral drugs that have been shown effective against, you know, to help reduce the symptoms of other viruses. You know, those clinical trials are ongoing. You know, it's it's. Who knows? You know, we're at least, you know, months away from from any of the drugs being available or being shown to be efficacious. You know, the most commonly cited timetable for a vaccine is about a year, if not longer. So there's going to be a certainly a long period where there really is not an effective treatment for the virus other than in severe cases putting people on respirators. And so that's the situation where you really do need to know if someone is tested positive, if, say, they are an elderly person with an underlying disease and you need to know if you should try some other aggressive therapy and then you can find out if it's covid-19. If you do, then that would change. You know, you could you could abandon those other therapies and put them on a respirator and make those kinds of decisions. And so those are the kinds of situations where knowing if it's a positive case is extremely important. And that's why some doctors are, you know, hanging on to those last few swabs they have right now.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. OK, well, we'll take another call just real quickly, Walter. Go ahead. You're on the air. We've got just about a minute or two left, Walter. I did want to get you in. So go ahead.

Caller:
Great. If a doctor has before them a patient who is displaying severe symptoms of covid-19 and needs a ventilator, is there no need to do a test? Just go ahead and put them on the ventilator and say that test for somewhere else where it's needed. Is that a useful approach?

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Thank you very much for the call, Walter. What do you think, Jason? If someone is really in trouble. Don't bother testing. Just put them on the ventilator.

Jason Moon:
That's a good question. I mean, I think obviously, you know, in any medical situation, you're going to have to be you know, I would leave it to that doctor in that particular case. There may be other factors that would tie into that decision. But but I think more broadly, that is exactly the kind of cost/benefit scenario ratio that doctors are trying to weigh. And it's not always a clear cut answer of, is a positive diagnosis really going to help the treatment of this person or or is it maybe going to use up a test that might be more useful for someone else? And I think it's just a tough situation for providers to be in right now.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I definitely got a sense from that from your reporting, Jason, doctors just trying to weigh this again, given the shortages that you described. Walter, thank you for calling in. And just circling back to you, Sarah Gibson. So just remind us what happens next week, on Monday in terms of this giant change for schools, students, teachers and parents.

Sarah Gibson:
There are so remote remote learning begins, a combination often of paper packets and online, and people are really urging families to be patient. As the transition happens, I just want to be clear, as remote learning happens, the DOE has issued very clear guidelines that all of the students who have special ed plans, which is about close to 30000 students, all of them by next week should be getting those services delivered in some capacity. So there are so many questions that remain about what it's gonna look like. And next week is really a time when we're gonna be watching to see what major challenges arise and what creative ways to just have for dealing with what will inevitably be a pretty challenging, uphill, pretty challenging week for for some families.

Laura Knoy:
Right. And I'm glad you mentioned that, Sarah, because that's been a big question. Children with I.E.P.s and how that's going to work. And I have a feeling we'll be talking to both of you again next week. Thank you both very much. You've been listening to the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup on New Hampshire Public Radio.