CONCORD, NH – Gov. Chris Sununu said he is ending the COVID-19 state of emergency in New Hampshire as of midnight on Friday and became emotional about the past year’s ordeal, the sacrifices made, and responded to charges that he has used the press conferences for political advantage.
“We still have a ‘public health incident,’” he said at Thursday’s press conference, but the worst of the crisis is behind us, adding that “is a big deal.”
The state has been under a state of emergency for more than a year, with declarations renewed more than 25 times, and those declarations have given the governor executive privilege and responsibility for spending federal funds and directing immediate aid to people in need.
It’s not all over, however.
The state saw three new COVID-19 deaths Thursday, but is averaging fewer than one death a day. All other data trends are moving in a positive direction with a majority of all eligible people in the state now vaccinated.
Sununu has long described the crisis as moving through a tunnel with light at the end of it but unclear how far away it really is. He said that we are now near the end of that tunnel with businesses opening up, mask mandates going down and events, like Bike Week in Laconia returning to normal this coming week.
The legislature will now be asked to allocate federal relief through the traditional process rather than having the governor doling it out through his GOFERR advisory committee, he said, but there will still be a “public health incident” which will cover access to flexibility and liability protections for health- care providers providing the vaccines.
He said the dropping of the emergency declaration will have no major impact on an average person but it marked an important milestone in a harrowing year.
Sununu said the state has pulled back on its requests for vaccines from the federal government for the first time last week, cutting it in half from more than 50,000 vaccines because of a reduction in demand. He said he was told by the federal government that he could not give extra doses to Canada as he hoped in an effort to get the residents there more vaccines and help with opening the border.
He noted it might be that the border could be open as early as June 22, when the border closing may be dropped or re-upped by Canada, which has seen fewer people vaccinated.
Tourism is being affected negatively with the border of Canada closed and the governor said he has been meeting with officials to try to get it open.
Bike Week, which begins on Saturday, will be impacted by the border closure. Charlie St.Clair, executive director of the 98th Laconia Bike Week, said traditionally about seven percent of all visitors are from Canada. Still, he said demand for hotel reservations this year are very strong for the upcoming event and Sununu noted there is a lot of interest in the event from around the United States.
Sununu attended a kick-off for the rally in Weirs Beach Thursday morning prior to the press conference.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, said there were 51 new cases of the coronavirus in the state on Thursday, down significantly with the state averaging about 50 new infections per day. There are now 345 active cases in the state and the active positivity rate is 1.6 percent, down from last week’s 1.8 percent, with hospitalizations at just 31, down also from last week.
However, there were three new deaths and Chan said one of the deaths was a person who was living in a long-term care setting. Chan noted there has been a dramatic drop in community-level transmission over the past few months.
Still, he said the best way to get things back to normal is to get vaccinated and encouraged all people age 12 and older to become fully vaccinated.
“COVID will be with us,” like other illnesses like the flu, he said, but the community transmission levels have dropped considerably in most areas of the state.
The goal is to get the rate of infection as low as possible but he said he did not think COVID would be eliminated in the United States or the state.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Health and Human Services Department gave a brief update, indicating there are no new outbreaks at long-term care facilities to report and the state is not ready to be closing any although it is getting close to closing one at the Sullivan County nursing home.
She said that 4,879 homebound residents have received the vaccine and just about 100 are in the queue to get first shots by the end of the month.
The state still has an outbreak at Birch Healthcare Center in Rochester.
She said the state is vaccinating homebound people but will end that at the end of June so she urged people to call 2-1-1 to get an appointment.
Shibinette also said that there has to be a balance in nursing homes to allow the public in and the lives of residents to be enriched as part of the community but the state would focus on ensuring people there are vaccinated, including new residents and staff.
Dr. Beth Daly, who heads up the infectious disease department within Health and Human Services, said there have been 1,500,000 doses of the vaccine administered in the state to date, including 817,000 receiving their first dose and more than 700,000 fully vaccinated.
At this point, supply is exceeding demand for vaccines with 450 locations having access, she said, including some outpatient provider offices.
Providers can get access to the vaccines by going to the state’s COVID-19 website, she said.
People are looking for work and since announcing the summer stipend program which will offer up to $1,000 for full-time employment after a few months of work, and an end to state participation in $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits, the state has seen nearly 5,700 people stop filing for weekly unemployment benefits, Sununu said.
That represents about a 17 percent drop in unemployment claims in the past few weeks.
“There are still plenty of jobs available,” he said. “You can work remotely in person, in all different regions across the state. Employers are being very flexible,” he said, especially in the hospitality industry which is in desperate need of workers.
He said two of his kids are working this summer and he noted that hiring events are seeing huge increases in people looking for work. The state also restored a requirement that people weekly report their efforts to find a job if they continue to file weekly claims.
Sununu said next Thursday will be the last regular COVID-19 weekly briefing, though there will be periodic press conferences on the subject. He began the briefings at the beginning of the pandemic and for much of it, there were two a week.
He noted he would be pulling back on those briefings as of July 1.
Sununu wanted to give a big thank you not only to his team but to the citizens of the state who have stepped up, volunteered, and helped through the ordeal.
And he became a bit emotional and angry when asked if the weekly press availability was being used politically as a tool in an effort to advance his political career.
“I’m having a TV event? Really?.. I take issue with that,” Sununu said.
The weekly press conferences have been carried live on WMUR-TV throughout the crisis and routinely on NH Public Radio.
Sometimes, Sununu said, the press conferences were daily because of a need to inform the residents and get them to buy into the solution, he said, which they did.
“It was a really tough time and I sincerely mean it, I hope no governor has to go through it. I really mean that. It was a really hard year,” he said taking a deep breath.
“I get emotional,” he whispered and then said there were a lot of sacrifices made.
Sununu noted that in 2020 we had riots over racial injustice, “insanity with elections and New Hampshire kept it together, every day, super transparent. you saw the data. every time.”
“You had to have public trust because when you say we are in it together you have to know that the people of the state were truly with us and every decision we made. And I hope no one ever has to go through this again and for anyone to insinuate that we come out here for political advantage? Shame on them. Shame on them. I don’t care if it’s an individual or a party…shame on them. This state knocked it out of the park. We made sure New Hampshire, all 1.4 million of them knew what we were doing and why and because of that the citizens responded. They knew what we were doing. They knew they were part of that and they are the reason we were so successful,” Sununu said.