Terrible Timing for Failure of State’s COVID-19 Tracking System – InDepthNH.org


By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org

The failure of the state’s COVID-19 infection tracking system could not have happened at a worse time.

State health officials have not released new data on the number of daily infections in a week, and have not updated the maps showing the number of active infections in each community or in the schools and colleges around the state.

Before the system failed, it was evident New Hampshire is falling behind other states in a number of areas, but hard to prove without numbers.

The state is dead last in the Northeast for vaccinated residents and despite the surge in the highly infectious Delta strain, few if any statewide restrictions remain from a year ago.

New Hampshire was one of the last states to declare a mask mandate last winter and one of the first in the Northeast to rescind it.

Gov. Chris Sununu ended most restrictions on restaurants and other public gathering places before most of the other New England governors when infections fell last spring and he has been reluctant to reimpose any public health considerations since.

New Hampshire’s wide open feel was evident during early summer, but the pandemic was not over as infections began increasing.

With the increase, state health officials urged residents to wear masks inside and in large gatherings, to retain social distancing and to get vaccinated to help blunt the disease’s spread, the governor only pushed for vaccinations in his rare press conferences to talk about the pandemic.

And infections grew when schools opened and students returned to classrooms as you might expect.

At the same time, the state Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut sought a new rule to prevent schools from returning to remote learning without special dispensation from his agency.

Also a law passed this spring prevented public schools and universities from requiring students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated in order to attend as many private schools and universities required.

Predictably, infections increased and you know the situation is not going to improve as the weather becomes colder and people stay indoors.

According to the available data on the state website, the number of new infections hit 736 on Oct. 15. That compares to more than 1,100 infections a day last December.

But 736 is a far cry from the 11 daily infections the state reported on July 24.

Earlier this month, New Hampshire and Vermont led the nation in the percentage increase in the number of new infections over the previous week. Northern New England has been hard hit by the latest surge of infections and has not slowed down like much of the rest of the country.

Before the system went down, the number of active cases in New Hampshire and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 were approaching levels not seen since the height of the pandemic last winter. 

And the number of deaths was also increasing and most were not nursing home residents as they were during last winter’s worst period.

Areas of the state that had mostly escaped the virus’s reach last winter, like the North Country, are now experiencing some of the highest percentage of infected residents in the Granite State.

Earlier in the surge, about 90 percent of the hospitalizations were unvaccinated individuals, but the percent of breakthrough cases has been creeping up including at long-term care facilities.

The accuracy of the state data for schools has been a concern for some time, as the numbers did not correspond to what school officials told parents.

Clusters of infections at schools approached 70 when the system crashed. That information has not been updated in more than a week making it difficult for school officials to judge whether extracurricular activities should be held.

The Legislature has experienced outbreaks as well, including early in the session when then-House Speaker Dick Hinch died from COVID-19. More recently there were concerns about spread from in-person House committee meetings.

Despite pleas from House Speaker Sherman Packard, many House members do not social distance in the meeting rooms, nor do they wear masks and many are not vaccinated due to their beliefs about “medical freedom.”

The House is a petri dish waiting for a super spreader event to happen and the likelihood grows if they begin meeting in Representatives Hall again for sessions.

While the virus surged, the four Republican Executive Councilors turned down $27 million in federal Centers for Disease Control money to expand the state’s vaccination programs.

Several hundred protesters greeted the councilors at two meetings, shutting down one, and the other with multiple arrests, objecting to the contracts.

Soon after the Executive Council vote, Health and Human Services Commission Lori Shibinette said the denial will delay rolling out child vaccination programs as well as booster shots for those who qualify.

The partisan polarization has contaminated the state’s response to the pandemic and it is growing more pronounced.

Parents should remember the council’s action when their school-age child contracts COVID-19 or a faculty or staff member at their school does.

The situation is not good with restaurants closing due to exposures and hospital ICUs filling with COVID patients leaving people with other afflictions waiting for care.

The governor’s recent response was to begin holding weekly press conferences to talk about the pandemic.

In his five years in office, Sununu has shown a real aptitude for self-promotion — look at his  twitter feed — and the press conferences are a great stage for that.

But much more than press conferences and lawsuits to block the Biden administration’s vaccination mandates the state joined Friday are needed if the state is going to seriously start corralling the virus that has infected about 10 percent of the state’s residents.

Everyone is tired of navigating the uncertainties COVID-19 creates, but the more people believe it is behind us, the longer it will take to finally arrive at some place that feels more like what “normal” used to be.

Having the state’s data system up and running and accurate is a needed first step.

Sununu has already set up the narrative for the coming months saying he expects this winter to be worse than last winter.

It could be, but the more vaccinated people, the less likely that will happen.

One way to increase the number of vaccinated folks is for the governor to put the vaccine contracts back before the council. 

A very vocal minority is driving the bus and the majority of state residents are paying the price for their activism.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

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