Medical teams from National Guard, FEMA called in to help hospitals with surge

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Dr. Ben Chan is pictured with Gov. Chris Sununu at Wednesday’s news conference in Concord. Screenshot


CONCORD, NH – Gov. Chris Sununu is calling up 70 members of the New Hampshire National Guard and FEMA is sending medical teams to help hospitals with the COVID-19 surge.

Sununu announced a number of other initiatives using federal money to help add health-care staff where needed in hospitals and nursing homes.

At a news conference Wednesday, Sununu said the state has “new tools” now to deal with the 462 current hospitalizations from COVID-19 in a state that has now seen 1,768 deaths due to the virus.

He said now is not the time, however, to start closing down schools and forcing children to learn remotely, as they did last academic year, nor is it the time to mandate vaccines.

Sununu also said the statistics are a bit skewed in terms of vaccination rates in the state because boosters are being added into the math for new vaccinations.

This Saturday, there will be 12,000 booster shots given through a statewide Booster Blitz but there are no more openings. He said another Booster Blitz will be planned after the holidays, noting that demand for the boosters is extremely high and people are waiting long periods of time to get appointments and at open fixed sites as well.

COVID-19 Update

State epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan reported 1,184 new cases in New Hampshire Wednesday and noted almost 10,000 are currently ill.

He said over the last week, the state has averaged 1,200 to 1,300 new cases a day and the current positivity rate is 12.3 percent.

Chan said hospitalizations and deaths are on the increase with 11 new deaths reported Wednesday. He added three of the 11 deaths were people associated with long-term care facilities.

He said there have been 40 new deaths over the last week, averaging six a day. “We strongly recommend everyone 5 and up to get vaccinated,” Chan said and everyone 18 and older should get a booster shot.

While the Omicron variant has not been identified in New Hampshire, Chan said, it is only a matter of time before it is found here as it has in 21 other states.

Chan suggested people have the smallest gatherings possible for holiday get-togethers and to use mitigation techniques to avoid infections.

The state is doing the genetic sequencing necessary to identify the Omicron variant, he said. Some early evidence about the variant indicates it may be more likely to cause reinfection of those who had been infected by another variant before, and a booster offered an increased and high level of protection against the Omicron as opposed to those who received two vaccines and are considered fully vaccinated.

Long-Term Care

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said there are a total of 24 outbreaks at long-term care facilities and while the state was opening five new outbreaks, it was closing four.

Spike All Around

Sununu showed a few graphs that include elevated cases which have come along with cold weather.

He said New England, in general, has faced a 28 percent increase in cases over the past few weeks.

“We are not going up as fast as we were a few weeks ago,” he said. “Hopefully, we are toward the end of this (surge) but I think these numbers are just going to continue to rise,” and hospitalizations often lag the new cases but indicate a coming surge, he said.

Initiatives

Sununu outlined a number of new initiatives to address the surge which include using 70 members of the National Guard to help out hospitals, a Booster Blitz, more vaccination vans, and more.

First, Sununu said he “twisted a few arms” in Washington and now FEMA is offering staffing assistance to help by sending 24-36 people to help critical access hospitals with staffing.

Elliot Hospital in Manchester is particularly hard hit and will receive the first FEMA teams.

A second team is also being sent including 30 paramedics at hospitals facing the highest number of cases to take the burden off existing staff.

Additionally, he noted the Executive Council approved $6 million for a strike team, and help for long-term care facilities which will help alleviate overcrowding in hospitals and move elderly in those hospital beds and waiting for a nursing home bed into one with a state guarantee to reimburse as if they were approved by Medicaid.

He said in talking to hospital officials the “strike team” concept was identified as the key thing to open up hospital bed space. Expanding licenses for health-care centers as well has also been accomplished through a change in the rules which allow the state Office of Professional Licensure to add to staffing levels.

Sununu said over 60 licenses have been issued as a result of the changes and that will have an immediate and temporary impact on getting people to work in these health-care settings.

At the same time, the office has been able to certify an additional 125 people to work in nursing homes.

“We are proactively reaching out to them to fill out the application so we can get those people….where they can be most effective,” Sununu said.

He announced that the state has engaged with hospitals to utilize the National Guard.

In March 2020, the guard was used to stand up hospital beds in gymnasiums and other locations which were not used.

“We saw what they can do and will do in the coming weeks. We will deploy 70 to hospitals,” Sununu said, to have them help with clerical and other jobs at hospitals to allow them to flex their hospital staff to its full ability.

“It is a huge resource,” Sununu said.

Getting people vaccinated and getting boosters is considered the first line of action to reducing the pandemic and Sununu noted the state is opening four new fixed sites across the state for vaccinations from first shots to boosters without an appointment.

As of Thursday, the sites will be open six days a week in Berlin, Plymouth, Claremont, and Rochester. Times and locations can be found at the website  vaccines.nh.gov

This Saturday, however, those sites will be used for the statewide Booster Blitz which is full. No more appointments are offered in spite of the fact that the state added 2,000 additional slots.

He said there will be over 12,000 vaccines administered across the state this Saturday.

For those who were not able to get an appointment, he said another event is planned shortly after the holidays with no exact date set.  Sununu acknowledged that getting an appointment for a booster is taking time with a seven-day wait period not uncommon.

Additional vaccine vans are going out across the state in the next few weeks, he said, and the three existing ones have been an important tool providing 1,500 shots a day.

There are now one million free in-home tests in the state and there is hope to offer more in the coming weeks.

He also noted that FEMA is sending more monoclonal antibodies which can be used to reduce the severity of COVID-19 and now another 2,000 doses are on their way to the state.

“There is an urgency here,” Sununu said to the pandemic and he said the media needs to do its part.

In the past, the press conferences have been televised by the only statewide television station, WMUR-TV in Manchester.

“The reality of what is happening in the hospitals is really scary stuff,” he said noting there is now a younger demographic getting seriously ill due to the Delta variant.

Elliot Hospital and Catholic Medical Center are taking the brunt of the cases with Elliot at times having 80 patients in the emergency waiting rooms with possible COVID-19 cases.

And it is not just in Manchester, but other hospitals including Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

The good news, he said, is those physicians, nurse practitioners, LNAs and others have help coming.

Hospital Beds

Shibinette was asked how many hospital beds she feels will likely be freed up now that the Executive Council and Fiscal Committee approved funds for strike teams at hospitals to meet capacity challenges and whether the relief would be concentrated in one area of the state.

Further, InDepthNH.org asked if it would mean immediate relief or take a few weeks.

She said the state has budgeted for four months for long-term care and strike teams “and we are not going to wait for everything to come together perfectly.”

Part of the plan is to identify two or three facilities that must be willing to take patients from anywhere in the state.  She said she has had six facilities reach out and did not think there would be an issue there.

“In addition to long-term care, we are talking to rehabilitation providers to see if they can open up some beds (for the currently hospitalized) so there is a lot of moving parts at one time,” Shibinette said.

She said the state will make gains over time, week after week.


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paula-tracy

Paula Tracy

Veteran reporter Paula Tracy writes for InDepthNH.org