CONCORD, NH – The state is no longer recommending people wear face masks indoors in buildings and schools as the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are on the decline.
At his news conference Wednesday, Gov. Chris Sununu said schools are now required to end mask mandates, as most are either doing or considering doing already.
Sununu was asked several times for clarity on whether school districts can decide on their own to end mask mandates. He explained under the new Public Health guidance, to do so would violate Department of Education rules.
“No. Schools really need to transition their policy away from the mask mandates,” Sununu said.
The Department of Education issued a news release soon after the press conference finished.
“Given the new public health guidance released today, however, mask requirements in school policies are inconsistent with the Ed 306 rules. A mask requirement may violate the district’s obligation to maintain policies that ‘Meet the instructional needs of each individual student,’ Ed 306.04(a)(6), “[p]romot[e] a school environment that is conducive to learning,” Ed 306.04(11), and that “[m]eets the special physical health needs of students.
“Therefore, consistent with prior public health recommendations, schools should transition to adopt these new public health recommendations as quickly as possible,” the release said.
Sununu said it is time to lift the mask recommendations as the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 dropped below 100 to 93 for the first time since August or September.
“It’s all downhill from here,” Sununu said. “We won’t take our eye off the ball of course.” Without a doubt the hopeful signs he predicted are coming to pass, Sununu said.
Sununu said federal rules still require people to wear face masks on public transportation and school buses and when entering hospitals. And some people may choose to continue wearing masks, especially if they have health issues.
When asked by a reporter, Sununu said he expects the House of Representatives will be meeting in Representatives Hall “very shortly.”
The House has been holding sessions at a Manchester conference center to avoid the close proximity of seating in Representatives Hall at the State House.
It has been a contentious issue as many Republicans refuse to wear masks in the State House, which has been mask-optional, and some are openly opposed to vaccinations. Democrats in the House with serious health issues have filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing they should be able to participate remotely. The appeals court hasn’t issued a final ruling yet.
House Speaker Sherman Packard announced Wednesday the next legislative session will be March 10 at Representatives Hall. House Democratic Leader Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said it was shortsighted and dangerous.
“House Democrats continue to believe that remote access to House sessions is an essential, cost-effective way to navigate the current pandemic. Packing people into Representatives Hall like sardines with no mask or vaccination requirement or other prevention strategies is a disaster in the making,” Cushing said.
Sununu said over 70 percent of people in New Hampshire have received at least one shot.
When asked about the number of breakthrough cases, a number that hasn’t been made publicly available for months, Sununu said: “I don’t think we have exact data on the number of breakthrough cases.” Any such data would likely not be accurate because so many COVID-19 cases are being done at home and not reported to the state, he said.
As to following the education rules to end face masks in schools, Sununu said, “This gets back to making sure every student has a free and equitable access to education.”
He said he thinks it will be a smooth transition.
State epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan said there were 282 new people diagnosed with COVID-19 Wednesday with a total of 1,598 with active infections and 93 hospitalizations.
Chan reported 14 new COVID-19 deaths with five associated with long-term care facilities, averaging about four deaths a day. The state news release issued after the press conference said there were 21 deaths related to COVID-19.
The Omicron surge is decreasing both in New Hampshire and nationally as population immunity and vaccinations have increased and there has been a notable decrease in the severity of illness from COVID-19, he said.
Sununu said people can continue to choose to wear masks. It will be a personal choice.