Only 47.9% and 44.6% of Newport’s and Claremont’s populations, respectively, are currently vaccinated.
While cases of COVID-19 remain low in Hanover and surrounding communities like Norwich and Lebanon, other towns in New Hampshire — many of which have seen higher rates of vaccine hesitancy and lack mask mandates — have recently experienced spikes in active cases.
According to data from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, Newport and Claremont — two towns in northern Sullivan County — have both experienced increases in COVID-19 case counts in recent days. As of Wednesday, Newport, with a population of roughly 6,350, had 62 cases and Claremont, with a population of roughly 13,000, had 100 cases. In comparison, Hanover, with a population of roughly 1,300, has eight active cases, and Lebanon, with a population of roughly 13,800, has 17 active cases.
One potential reason for the recent spike in cases in both towns, as well as Sullivan County more broadly, is low vaccination rates. Sullivan County’s vaccination rate is 56%, according to data from The New York Times, below New Hampshire’s 62% and Grafton County’s 67%.
Both Newport and Claremont fall still below that. According to Newport Fire Chief Steve Yannuzi, though the vaccine is now “readily available” at free, county-operated vaccination clinics, only 47.9% of the town is fully vaccinated. Overall, Yannuzi said that turnout to recent vaccination clinics has remained “very poor.”
“Lack of a vaccine is not the issue,” Yannuzi said. “I would like to see everyone get vaccinated, but it is a personal choice for people.”
Yannuzi said that one potential reason for the difference in vaccination between Newport and towns like Hanover and Lebanon is the difference in demographics between the two towns. He said that unlike Hanover, Newport is a “blue-collar working town.”
Claremont city manager Ed Morris said that he has seen some vaccine hesitancy in Claremont, where only 44.6% percent of the population is fully vaccinated. He added that he thinks the increase in cases in Claremont is due to both the city’s comparatively large size and that it has a “very transient” population.
“We’re quite a bit bigger than everyone else,” Morris said. “We’re a shopping hub where people come to congregate or go out to dinner, and most of the communities around us are much smaller, so many people come to us for testing.”
Morris also said that while there has been a “large increase” in the number of COVID-19 cases in Claremont, there has been no corresponding increase in hospitalizations or deaths. However, he said that according to the DHHS website, Claremont and its neighboring towns in Sullivan County are currently experiencing “significant transmission,” whereas Grafton County is experiencing “moderate transmission.”
While both Claremont and Newport have experienced significant increases in their case counts, neither town has opted to implement an indoor mask mandate. According to Yannuzi, Newport is currently following state level guidance on masking policy, which only “recommends” that unvaccinated individuals wear masks. Similarly, Morris said that the city council of Claremont only voted to “strongly recommend” that residents wear masks indoors.
“The only policy with masks we have is that town employees must wear masks in public spaces, like City Hall, when we are in a state of significant transmission,” Morris said. “We also ask that public employees try to wear masks when in congregate settings, and try to socially distance when possible.”
However, while Claremont and Newport differ from Hanover on having an indoor mask mandate, schools in Newport currently require mask wearing for students and staff, a policy in line with the requirement for schools in Hanover. School Administrative Unit 43 school board chair Jenna Darling said that while the SAU43 school board, which oversees four schools in Newport, voted to start the year with optional mask wearing, it has since changed its policies to require all students and staff to wear them.
“The [SAU43] board amended our reopening plan so that masks were optional if there were fewer than three cases in a school building,” Darling said. “However, due to a large number of positive COVID-19 cases in the district, on Sept. 23, the board voted to implement mandatory masks.”
Darling added that because of the division in Newport over mask-wearing and a “lack of guidance” from the state government, the board was put in a “difficult” position about whether or not to mandate masks. She added that the SAU43 board plans to review the mask policy again in October at the next board meeting, and that the board continues to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff on the board.