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COVID update: Record N.H. jobless rate; NHTI ‘surge’ facility to be dismantled

  • A driver, with his truck adorned in support of President Trump, passes by a restaurant in Nashua, N.H.., Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Restaurants along Main Street were allowed to reopen and take a travel lane in front of their restaurant after being closed in March because of the virus outbreak shutdown. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • ABOVE: A client of Toward Independent Living and Learning, Inc. draws a tree with chalk while adorning an alleyway outside the Cravings Cafe and Gift Shop with sketches and positive messages in Nashua on Wednesday. Many of the adults with disabilities have not been able to work their usual jobs at the shop due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. AP

  • LEFT: About 150 cots from FEMA line NHTI’s Wellness Center gymnasium on April 3. The center, which has been used for flex space in the event of a surge, will be dismantled. Geoff Forester / Monitor file

  • New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu during the tour of the NHTI's Sweeney Hall on Friday morning, April 10, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Published: 5/28/2020 8:01:58 AM

Gov. Chris Sununu has formed a task force to address issues of racial and ethnic disparity during the coronavirus pandemic, he announced Thursday, following pressure from a diversity advisory group.

A group of five leading figures – including three public officials and two civilians – will soon start meeting to discuss the disproportionate impact the virus has had on minority communities, many of whom suffer from lack of health care resources already.

Members of the “COVID-19 Equity Response Team” will be Bobbie Bagley, director of the Nashua division of public health and community services; Kirsten Durzy, an epidemiologist in the state Division of Public Health Services; Rogers Johnson, president of the Seacoast NAACP; and Dottie Morris, associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at Keene State College.

In a statement, Sununu said racial equity remains “a priority for the state” when it comes to the coronavirus response.

The new group is tasked with devising a set of recommendations for the state to take within 30 days.

That includes a deeper analysis of the demographic trends behind New Hampshire’s new COVID-19 cases – which have been over-represented in minority communities.

According to April data from DHHS, Hispanic and Latino New Hampshire residents comprised 3.9% of all people in the state, but make up 6.1% of the state’s positive cases. Black Granite Staters similarly make up 1.4% of the population but account for 5.4% of the cases.

The new team is also charged with studying the factors that are driving those disparities, and recommendations for state actions for how to eliminate the gaps.

The formation of the response team comes three weeks after the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion sent a letter May 4 asking for the creation of the team.

In creating the new task force, members of the Council on Diversity are hoping to bring about broader changes as well.

The new action plan to address disparities “is necessary not just to address the current crisis,” wrote Rogers Johnson, the chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Council, on May 4.

“Establishing sound mechanisms for analyzing critical demographic data, and focusing the relevant actors on addressing the disproportionate impacts of this pandemic will serve the longer-term health equity of the Granite State,” Johnson wrote.


April unemployment in New Hampshire was the highest since records were first kept in 1976: 16.3%.

The number of state residents without jobs was also a record, increasing six-fold in one month to 122,570.

The number reflects “the impact on unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain it,” noted New Hampshire Employment Security in a press release.

The state figure is higher than the national jobless rate for April of 14.7%, the first time in many years that New Hampshire’s unemployment rate has exceeded the national average.

All these figures are changing fast due to the evolving status of stay-at-home orders around the state and country. The state had 590,980 employed residents in April, a decrease of 152,150 from March and the lowest level since May 1994, when the state’s population was 200,000 lower than it currently is.

From March to April, the total labor force decreased by 50,660 to 713,550.

State to remove surgehospital at NHTI

The state will remove most of the emergency facilities that were set up by the National Guard when the coronavirus first arrived, including one at NHTI in Concord.

The facilities were put together to handle a possible surge of hospitalizations that never occurred. Four will stay available, in Manchester, Plymouth, Durham and Littleton.

“Our hospitals have successfully created surge space within their existing facilities should the demand for beds exceed the capacity in their facilities,” said Lori Shibinette, commissioner of Health and Human Services, in a prepared statement. “We have ensured we have the ability to re-open four of the flexible surge sites within 48 hours if the need arises. However, the COVID-19 response in New Hampshire requires us to further prioritize resources on supporting the residents and staff in long-term care facilities, where the need is greatest.”

NHTI was one of 14 locations that housed the hospital-like facilities, with close to 300 beds set up in the college gymnasium and some dorm rooms in Langley Hall.

“Working with community leaders and state and local health care professionals, we fielded 14 flex sites in 14 days,” said New Hampshire Adjutant Gen. David Mikolaities. “It was truly a remarkable cooperative effort that thankfully ended up being a case of ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. If the need arises again, our citizen soldiers and airmen will be ready at a moment’s notice.”

National Guarddeployment extended

Days after pressure from governors across the country – including Sununu – the Trump administration has decided to reauthorize a special status for National Guard members assisting states with the pandemic.

In a Twitter post Thursday, President Trump praised National Guard members for “doing a great job fighting the CoronaVirus.” And he said that he would extend their Title 32 designations through to mid-August.

New Hampshire has presently been authorized to deploy 1,000 National Guard members under the Title 32 orders. That designation means that the federal government covers the cost for deploying the Guard members rather than states, a cost that can rack up in the millions of dollars.

Before Thursday, the Title 32 designations had been set to expire June 24, meaning states would have to begin picking up the tab.

In New Hampshire, around 700 of the maximum 1,000 Guard members have been put to work running call centers for unemployment funds, distributing masks and food, and facilitating testing centers.

Before Thursday, Trump administration had moved to limit the deployment to 89 days – just one short of allowing those participating to access certain federal benefits.

In a letter to Trump on Saturday, Sununu had pleaded for an extension of the authorization through to the end of September, pointing to the continuing need for the deployments as the pandemic rages on in the state. Not having the Guard members paid for with federal money would mean services would have had to be curbed, Sununu warned.

“I commend the President for extending Title 32 status,” Sununu said in a statement. “This announcement will allow our National Guard to continue to provide critical services.”

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and other members of the Congressional delegation had also applied pressure.

Nine more deaths

Long-term care facilities continue to see deaths from COVID-19, with nine more reported Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 223, most in people over 60 and often living in nursing homes or similar facilities, with no indication that the rate of new deaths is slowing.

At the same time the number of new cases has leveled off or is declining, with 56 reported Wednesday.

The hospitalization rate remains at 10% of cases, where it has been for several weeks. A decline in this figure would be a sign that the pandemic is abating in New Hampshire.

Merrimack County has seen 327 cases through Wednesday, about 8% of the state’s total. The county has 11% of the state’s population. Concord has had 93 cases.

Race trackseason canceled

The attorney general’s office will not take action against a New Hampshire racetrack that violated the state’s order prohibiting large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Riverside Speedway in Groveton held races with spectators on Saturday despite being warned by police, the attorney general’s office said. After being told the state was prepared to take legal action, Riverside owner Michael Humphrey announced Wednesday the season has been postponed until further notice.

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said Thursday that no further action was necessary.

“The objective of the Governor’s Orders is to protect the public health. Mr. Humphrey’s decision advances that important objective,” he said.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.)

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