Sununu: All state employees back at work stations by May 10, masks optional

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Gov. Chris Sununu is pictured at Thursday’s press conference. WMUR Screenshot


CONCORD, NH – While most state employees are already back at their desks, the remaining ones who have been working from home will be returning by May 10, Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday at his weekly news conference.

There is no mandate for state employees to wear masks when they return, but he wants them to feel safe and will encourage them to wear them, Sununu said.

“We have been very consistent to all agencies,” Sununu said. “They get the same message.”

State employees have all had access to the vaccine and Sununu expects the state-run businesses will be fully operational for transactions as well on May 10.

Best Practices

When the pandemic hit a year ago, Sununu asked a task force to work with individual business sectors to come up with more than 40 specific guidance documents required for reopening businesses.

On Thursday, Sununu said he was releasing a new voluntary document to replace those – a universal best practices document for restaurants, retail, amusement parks, and hairdressers.

A separate document will be released for schools and a third for sleepover camps because youngsters can’t be vaccinated yet. There is hope that a vaccine will be available in the coming months for those ages 12 and up. The governor said he is not setting a six- or three-foot distance between patrons and is allowing the particular venue to make that call. It all goes into effect on May 7.

“Everyone has to find the best path for their venues,” Sununu said.

Demand Down

With at least 60 percent of the state’s eligible population having already chosen to get a COVID-19 vaccine, demand for the shots is going down precipitously, officials said.

Sununu said the focus now is to convince the rest of the population to do the same while returning state offices and businesses back to pre-pandemic normal.

The state has among the nation’s highest vaccination rates and while that is great, Sununu said, here are 4,500 doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be distributed Sunday and still thousands of appointments available in Concord, Nashua, and Newington in the former Sears department stores.

COVID-19 Update

Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, said there were 298 new cases of the coronavirus in the state on Thursday, down from last week bringing the total number of active cases to 2,610. The state’s positivity rate is now at 3.8 percent, down from last week and hospitalizations have also come down from a week ago. As of Thursday, there were 87 people in the hospital with COVID-19.

Five new deaths were reported Thursday, with one being a resident of a long-term care facility. Chan said that brings the state to a total of 1,301 deaths so far from the virus. While the majority of the data points are trending down, spring travel may put the risk for the numbers to go up again, he said.

He urged people to continue to practice social distancing, wear masks and to get vaccinated if they have not been already done so. Chan also noted that the numbers the state reports at nh.gov/covid19 will change with a focus on key metrics.

Vaccination Update

Dr. Beth Daly, head of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control at the Department of Health and Human Services, said there have now been 1,093,000 vaccines delivered with 687,000 people receiving at least their first dose and about one-third of the state’s population fully vaccinated.

Doses of the vaccines are coming into the state at a constant level and there are now 300 locations to get vaccinated.

Vaccine Hesitancy

Daly said she knows some people might be unsure about whether to get the vaccine, but she noted that they are all safe, and will help everyone return to normal, and are better than no vaccine at all. She said no shortcuts were taken to create the vaccines and they underwent rigorous scrutiny.

You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccines because they were not made with live viruses. If you had COVID-19, the vaccine will boost your immunity to get it again, she said. And side effects are minor and temporary.

Getting the vaccine might also help younger people avoid what is called “long COVID” which lasts for months. That is avoidable by getting the vaccine, Chan said. Also having the vaccine allows people to avoid having to quarantine for 14 days if they are exposed to the virus.

Long-Term Care

There was one new COVID-19 outbreak to report this week at Sullivan County Healthcare, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette.

She said it involves nine residents and three staff. There are also outbreaks continuing at the Coos County Nursing home and the federal prison in Berlin.

Shibinette said just as a reminder for nursing home families that there are no state limitations on visitation, provided the nursing home is not in an outbreak status.
Each, she said has full flexibility to allow visitors both indoor and out.

“We have heard from quite a few families that they are still wanting to visit. There is nothing in state guidance that restricts this other than if in outbreak status,” she stressed. There will continue to be federal guidance from the CDC and other agencies.

She noted that the state is making progress with getting vaccines into the arms of its homebound population with 3,245 vaccinated. She said the state is looking to have that group that is willing to receive the vaccine, fully vaccinated by mid-May.

Halting J&J

The governor, who received the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine along with Shibinette and Dr. Daly at a supersite event recently, said he was dismayed by the federal government’s decision to pull it from the shelves after a handful of cases in which severe blood clots occurred in individuals who received the vaccine.

Last Friday, the government allowed the shots to be resumed with warnings about such blood clots but some believe that led to vaccine hesitancy. Sununu stressed that the vaccine is “safe, effective and helps us get back to normal.”

Sununu said New Hampshire has among the lowest rates of vaccine waste in the country at under 1 percent, but he is concerned that going forward there may be more waste. He said that is because Moderna, one of the three vaccines approved in the U.S. for emergency authorization, is going to release more doses per vial.

That means there will be 14 doses per vial. The problem is you will need 14 people lined up at a time to get the vaccine because it goes bad at room temperature quickly.

Job Fairs

Sununu announced 10 virtual job fairs across the state in the coming weeks, noting there are lots of good-paying jobs in the state that are unfilled. Last week he announced that the state would require a return to a policy where people need to show they have been looking for work to continue to get benefits as of May 23. The requirement was suspended for about a year because of the pandemic.

“You won’t be kicked off if you don’t find work,” Sununu said. “but you do need to look for work.”

More Break-Through Cases

Chan said so far in the state, the number of break-through cases of the virus among those who have been fully vaccinated is at 88.
No vaccine is 100 percent effective but they are highly effective at reducing death and hospitalization, he said.
He said it did not appear that a high percentage of those individuals became sick from a variant of COVID-19.

Passports

The governor said he is very hesitant about the government requiring vaccinations.

He called that “walking in murky waters.”

Private businesses can do what they want but he said he does not feel it is the proper role of the government to require vaccines.

“I just don’t think we need to go there,” he said.

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Paula Tracy

Veteran reporter Paula Tracy writes for InDepthNH.org