By Paula Tracy
CONCORD — The death toll in New Hampshire from the COVID-19 rose to 21 on Thursday, with 31 new positive cases reported and a total of 819 confirmed cases in the state.
Numbers of cases in Carroll County are also on the rise, with 27 cases reported on Thursday; there were 23 confirmed cases in the county on Wednesday and 19 on Tuesday. Conway is reported to have betwee five and nine residents who tests positive for the virus. Many towns in the county have between one and four people with confirmed COVID-19.
Also on Wednesday, at Gov. Chris Sununu’s press conference in Concord, the state announced outbreaks at three extended care facilities in the state have led to 10 deaths, 59 residents testing positive and 35 staffers coming down with the virus.
The deaths are among the 18 deaths now counted in the state and 41 new cases as of Wednesday.
Hanover Hill Health Care in Manchester has experienced four resident deaths, 37 residents who tested positive and 13 staffers who also tested positive, said Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The state at that time was reporting a total of 788 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Shibinette also noted that The Huntington at Nashua had five resident deaths due to the virus, 19 who have tested positive and 11 staff members who have tested positive.
Also last week, the state reported that at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield, three residents tested positive, one patient died and 11 staffers were infected.
Of the state’s total positive cases, 118 individuals or about 16 percent are hospitalized and Shibinette said on average about 5 percent of those patients require ventilators in critical care settings at hospitals.
Sununu said he feels comfortable that the state has the capacity to deal with the expected surge of cases in the next few weeks with about 3,000 hospital beds and 1,500 beds in surge centers ready to deal with the pandemic.
On a positive note, he mentioned that the number of new positive confirmations daily in the state has gone down and while he is not ready to call it a trend, he said it was a somewhat hopeful sign tempered by the loss of people to the virus.
“We are encouraged by those numbers but let’s not forget … those who we have lost,” Sununu said.
For the families who are suffering that loss, “our heart definitely goes out to them.”
And he said that “some of our toughest days are really ahead of us.”
Shibinette said there have been other cases of COVID-19 in other long-term health facilities in the state but they did not constitute an “outbreak” and if they did, the state would publicly identify and report them.
State and local health departments are working to isolate cases in such centers where the elderly are considered the most vulnerable to serious complications and death from the virus, she said.
Sununu also addressed some legislators’ concerns that he is creating a new office to expedite federal moneys which some say is circumventing the checks and balances of state government, particularly as it relates to the legislative fiscal committee.
On April 7, Sununu announced the establishment of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR). He said it would be similar to Gov. John Lynch’s New Hampshire Office of Economic Stimulus in 2009.
“Unlike the 2009 stimulus investment process that used the budget to ensure legislative input, the urgency and timing of this crisis does not allow for that course of action,” Sununu said. “We are creating a bipartisan Legislative Advisory Board within GOFERR to ensure transparency and input to the process. It is important that this process has as much accountability, transparency, and integrity as possible, and I look forward to having legislative leadership advise this critically important office.”
GOFERR will be charged with the investment and oversight of COVID-19 relief and stimulus funds provided to New Hampshire by the federal government. The office will manage the accounting, auditing, legal, and IT requirements surrounding these investments and will ensure transparency and accountability metrics to the citizens of New Hampshire for all relief and stimulus efforts.
He said the reason he is creating this office is simply about speed. “The legislature doesn’t move with such immediacy,” Sununu said.
It meets Constitutional muster, he said, and is part of the broad powers the legislature created in RSA 4:44 related to emergency powers.http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/rsa/html/I/4/4-45.htm.
Earlier in the day, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said at the Executive Council meeting that Sununu is not overreaching in his powers, although some lawmakers disagree.
Sununu said he was making a promise to residents of the state that he would move as fast as possible to get the money to where it needs to go and cut bureaucracy in so doing, while still allowing for transparency and bipartisan oversight.
While some legislative leaders and Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, a candidate for governor, are challenging the matter, Sununu saved his wrath for “Washington,” which promised him fast-acting COVID-19 detection devices without the cartridges needed to do the tests.
“Frankly, I am banging my head against the wall,” he said noting that they sent 15 of the devices but only enough cartridges to do a few tests.
Sununu said he was told they will send more when they can, but that the stockpile is primarily going to places with more need.
“We keep pursuing it at every level and we are going to be louder and louder about it,” Sununu said. “You’ve got to be clear in a crisis.”
Sununu was asked about when he might decide on whether schools can reopen. The closure is now until May 4. He said he will visit the issue in about two weeks to 10 days before May 4 on whether to extend the closure.
And he said that each emergency order will be re-evaluated on a case-by-case basis for reopening, from non-essential businesses, to hotels, and restaurants.
“Public health is the top priority,” and the determining factor for changes in orders, Sununu said.
He also updated unemployment information noting that over 67,000 total payments have already been disbursed with $19 million in payments “thanks to the incredibly hard work of those in employment security.”