CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Broad segments of the New Hampshire population can now get tested for the coronavirus without a referral, state officials said Wednesday as COVID-19 deaths rose to a new daily high of 19.
All of the newly announced deaths occurred among residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. About 20 facilities have experienced outbreaks, and deaths of their residents account for 78% of the state’s total death count of 111. The state announced an extensive plan to expand testing at such facilities statewide, in addition to increased testing availability for the general public.
The broader plan allows anyone with any symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested without a referral from a health care provider by signing up on the state’s website or calling a central scheduling office starting Thursday. Others, including people over age 60, health care workers or those with certain underlying medical conditions, can get tested even if they don’t have symptoms.
“Expanding our testing capacity in this way is going to be a very important tool as we go forward,” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said.
More than 1,000 of the state’s 6,400 nursing home residents have been tested, along with more than 5,000 workers, said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, who estimated the long-term care workforce at about 20,000. An effort to test every worker in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties has been successful in preventing outbreaks, she said, because it led to the discovery of asymptomatic staff before any residents were infected.
Those efforts will be expanded now that the state can employ a different type of nasal swap that will allow nursing home staff to easily collect samples and send them to the state for analysis, she said.
In the next two weeks, those swabs will be used to test all nursing home residents statewide, and the state will follow up with a sentinel surveillance system in which 10% of the facilities will test 10% of their residents each week. Plans are also in the works to set up mobile teams to test all long-term care staff every seven to 10 days.
Though nursing home residents account for a higher percentage of COVID-19 deaths in New Hampshire than in most other states, Shibinette emphasized that the death rate in the rest of the community is low compared to elsewhere. She also noted that New Hampshire has one of the nation’s oldest populations.
“We’ve taken some aggressive actions right from the beginning on testing based on what we had available to use,” she said. “I can say, ’I wish I had had the supplies on the first of March to go through and test all long-term care staff but that’s not reality, and we didn’t have those supplies then. We do have them now, and we’re coming out and testing everybody we can.”
A task force on reopening New Hampshire’s economy recommends that dentists resume some routine work if they can provide staff with medical grade personal protective equipment.
While dentistry offices have not been ordered to close, most if not all have limited their practice to emergency work. The Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force on Wednesday approved a recommendation that they resume elective and orthodontic procedures if they comply with American Dental Association guidance regarding protective equipment. The group is not recommending the resumption of elective cosmetic procedures or the use of ultrasonic scaling.
Task force member Bill Marsh, a Republican state representative from Wolfeboro, said the guidance balances the public health risk of opening versus the public health cost of remaining closed.
“This lets dentists catch up a bit on their backlog and keeps us from creating too much of a public health burden from untreated dental disease,” he said.
Drive-through ceremonies with no handshakes, hugs or high-fives may mark the end of high school for some New Hampshire graduates.
The Department of Education said schools going ahead with ceremonies should consider limiting audience size to two guests per student.
Officials said one option could be to have people stay in their cars, parked in every other spot, and graduates would exit in small, appropriately spaced groups, to get their diplomas. Diplomas also could be distributed “drive-up” style, or participants could be spread out among classrooms within a school.
As of Wednesday, 2,740 people in New Hampshire have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 108 from the previous day; 111 people have died.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.