N.H. health officials take center stage during coronavirus pandemic

  • Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, at the twice-weekly COVID-19 update with Governor Chris Sununu at the State Fire Academy on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, at the twice-weekly COVID-19 update with Gov. Chris Sununu at the State Fire Academy on June 23. Chan is a graduate of Concord High School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Commissioner Lori Shibinette of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services discusses the latest developments in the fight against COVID-19 at a recent press conference as Gov. Chris Sununu listens in. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/4/2020 4:00:57 PM

In early March, state health officials sent out a press release with grave news: COVID-19 was here in New Hampshire and residents needed to take immediate precautions.

Stay home and avoid public places if you feel sick, the public was told. Wash your hands frequently and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

In the days and weeks that followed, two important figures emerged at press conferences alongside Gov. Chris Sununu – State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette.

Both have strong ties to the Concord area. Chan is a Concord High School graduate, while Shibinette was the former head of the Merrimack County Nursing Home in nearby Boscawen. Television cameras rolled as they stood in front of the microphone day after day throughout the pandemic, calmly giving updates on the number of illnesses and deaths, while offering advice on how to stay safe.

Hungry for answers, people watched and listened to their every word.

They became the face of New Hampshire’s coronavirus response, yet neither is accustomed – nor particularly fond – of being in the limelight.

“I didn’t realize how many people watch a full hour press conference,” Shibinette said recently in an interview with the Monitor. “The first week, I went to the grocery store in sweatpants and thought, ‘Wow, I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

Behind the scenes no more

Epidemiologists are not known for reveling in the spotlight.

They typically work behind the scenes, investigating outbreaks and devising plans of action. This is what Chan had in mind when he transitioned from a young Dartmouth-educated doctor to become the state epidemiologist.

The global pandemic has forced him into the public gaze, like New Hampshire’s version of Dr. Fauci. A matter-of-fact man, Chan is comfortable meeting with school and nursing home officials to give them guidance and information. He’s faced all kinds of questions, like explaining the state’s high death toll at long-term care facilities, to lighter COVID-19 Q&As with kids across the state with queries like, “When will I be able to get my braces off?”

The media attention, especially when it comes to his personal life, is never something he pictured for his career.

“Frankly, it’s uncomfortable,” he said.

For example, he recently cut his hair to make his 10-mile weekend hikes more bearable in the summer heat.

Not only did the public tweet about his haircut, but the governor loudly asked a room full of journalists at a live press conference if they noticed Chan’s short hair, which, of course, they did. Several reporters already asked him to confirm the rumor that he cuts his own hair (he does).

Still, Chan recognizes that communication with the public is part of the job and has worked at becoming more comfortable with it over the last six years.

Now, at press conferences, he is poised and collected. Even as still cameras rapidly click in his direction, sometimes less than three feet from his face, he stared straight ahead, feigned a weak smile, and shifted his weight slightly in his seat.

Chan’s interest in science started during his time at Concord High School and then grew as he studied biology at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school in Illinois. Chan said he took a job with the state in 2014 because epidemiology seemed like a way to marry his interests – infectious diseases and public health.

Since then, he has been the face of the state’s response to drinking water contamination, and other scary diseases like Ebola and Zika.

Chan said he has heard comments about his appearance for just about as long as he’s been with the department. Even an Associated Press journalist began a recent column by admitting she and her ex-husband’s husband have a crush on him.

“My wife would say she totally agrees but would prefer that people focused on the professional work that I do,” he said.

Chan staves off most of the attention by simply not having social media accounts and rarely talking about his personal life.

While all of Chan’s interactions with the public have been positive during the coronavirus, Chan said he wants to protect the privacy of his wife and two children. He is well aware that when the pandemic is finally over, other health issues will emerge that the public will need to know about.

Chan figures all the attention on the coronavirus might actually help spread important public health information.

“I hope the familiarity people have with me is a vessel for people hearing the information we have to share,” he said.

COVID takes over

Shibinette, who was promoted to commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services in January, had grand plans for her first couple of months on the job.

She was going to improve mental health programs, transitional housing, and revamp the entire long-term care system in New Hampshire. In her first week, she had already created a task force and started developing an ambitious plan that outlined how New Hampshire would deliver, pay for, and manage long-term care.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

“In early March I understood that (COVID-19) was going to own me for many, many months,” she said.

Shibinette had worked with the state for years – first as the Deputy Commissioner for the DHHS and then as the CEO of New Hampshire Hospital, a state inpatient psychiatric facility. She was unanimously confirmed by the Executive Council to her position on January 22, a day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States.

Her task force came to a halt, she moved offices to the Emergency Operations Center and started regularly standing beside the governor during press conferences.

Almost overnight, people began to recognize Shibinette. People honked their horns, waved, and told her what they thought of the day’s conference.

She’s regained a little anonymity in public now that she wears a mask whenever she is out.

Shibinette admitted that many aspects of her job have been difficult to adjust to. She compares handling COVID-19 to building a plane mid-flight – there are no instructions and timing is critical.

A self-described “doer” and registered nurse, her job is to make difficult decisions for a massive state department, but she still worries about all those who are ill and the front-line workers.

“When we started hearing about outbreaks in nursing homes and staff leaving, my first instinct was to say ‘I can work weekends,’ ” she said

The sheer volume of work has been another challenge. At the beginning of the pandemic, Schibinette and her staff worked 15-hours a day, seven days a week.

“COVID doesn’t stop – there is always a new outbreak, always family members who have questions, or a contact that needs to be traced,” she said.

Shibinette, who trains and shows dogs in her free time, said her husband has had to pick up the slack around the house to take care of their seven canines.

After three weeks without a single day off, Shibinette’s team realized their hours weren’t sustainable. Overworked and overtired, they agreed to work one of the days from home.

About two weeks ago, for the first time in three months, Shibinette returned to her office and started resuming her non-pandemic responsibilities. Now, her team works weekends from home.

While COVID-19 is far from over, cases in New Hampshire have been steadily declining, freeing her to focus on the lofty goals she had imagined when she took her new job, at a time that feels like years ago.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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