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Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

An umbrella-equipped pedestrian makes their way along Appian Way in Keene Thursday morning surrounded by a fresh coating of snow.

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Youth coalition hosts session aimed at raising NH tobacco age

As lawmakers in Concord consider bumping up the tobacco age statewide, area residents gathered in Keene Thursday to discuss the dangers of youth smoking and vaping.

Hosted by the Keene Family YMCA’s Community Coalition on Youth Substance Use, the hour-long event focused on two pieces of legislation — Senate Bill 248 and House Bill 1662 — that would raise the legal age to buy, possess or use tobacco in New Hampshire.

The Senate bill — whose co-sponsors include N.H. Sens. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, and Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover — passed the Senate and was referred to the House’s Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee last month.

The House bill, which came out of the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee with a recommendation of ought to pass with an amendment, will be voted on by the House on Wednesday.

The state’s current purchase age for these products is 19, although some communities have established a different minimum through their own ordinances.

In December 2018, Keene became the second community in New Hampshire to raise the age for purchase, possession and use of tobacco products to 21. Although other municipalities have since followed suit, the Elm City remains the only one in the Monadnock Region.

Neighboring Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts are among the 19 states that have also raised the age to 21, and at the end of last year, Congress passed a nationwide law to increase the minimum age for sale of all tobacco products to 21.

However, the law does not preempt states or municipalities from passing their own age-restriction rules, and attendees Thursday noted that the different laws are confusing.

“When I’ve had a conversation with our chief of police in Winchester ... if he were to come across someone who was 19 who was in possession or trying to purchase tobacco products, he can’t do anything about it,” said Missy Calderwood, drug-free community coordinator for We’ve Got Your Back in Winchester. “Federally, yeah, [the person’s] breaking the law, but state-wise, he’s not.”

Raising the sale age to 21 across New Hampshire, she added, would clear up any discrepancy.

While others agreed with her, most who spoke Thursday said youth vaping is the main reason they want to see the state law changed.

Vaping refers to inhaling vapor from a device such as an e-cigarette, which frequently involves heating a liquid that can contain nicotine, marijuana or other substances. Those active ingredients are delivered in solvents.

Because e-cigarettes contain nicotine derived from tobacco, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a new rule in 2016 allowing the devices and liquid solutions to be government-regulated as tobacco products.

Although e-cigarettes are often touted as a safer alternative to smoking, thousands of vaping-associated lung injuries have been reported nationwide.

As of Feb. 4, at least 2,758 vaping-associated lung injuries and 64 deaths had been flagged to the CDC since June. Three cases have been tallied in New Hampshire, none of them fatal.

Vitamin E acetate — oil derived from vitamin E that typically does not cause harm when ingested or applied to the skin — is one of the potential leads in the CDC’s investigation into the illnesses, though the exact cause hasn’t been determined.

While New Hampshire’s caseload thus far has remained low, youth vaping is prevalent.

Twenty-four percent of high school students in the state said they’d used a vaping product in 2017, according to data provided by the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, compared to 13 percent nationwide.

For the Monadnock Region, the rate was 18 percent.

“In the short time that I’ve been out meeting with people about e-cigarette use and vaping, there is a lot of confusion in New Hampshire around the law,” said Peter Sebert, YMCA program director. “The biggest fear I have is, it sends and contributes to that false narrative that e-cigarette use, or especially vaping, is somewhat safe.”

Lindsey Sitaro, a senior at Keene State College, said she’d been under this impression.

She told the room of 12 people, including Kahn, she had smoked tobacco for three years, and used a Juul, a popular vaping device, for about a year after a friend handed her one to try.

“I know for me, it was definitely a social thing,” said Sitaro, 21.

But she said she experienced several short-term effects that aren’t often discussed.

“The juice in the pods will leak, and you’ll have this highly concentrated nicotine juice on your lips, and nicotine poisoning would happen a lot. I’d be late to class or something because I’d be puking in the bathroom before,” she said.

Sarah Lavoie of Keene — whose story was shared by Dane Levis of the Concord-based nonprofit organization New Futures because she couldn’t attend Thursday’s event — wondered if she’d be addicted to nicotine if the legal age had been higher when she was younger.

“By 21, I was far more mature and knew then I should’ve never started smoking when I was 19,” Lavoie’s statement read. “That was 17 years ago, and I’ve only recently been able to put it down and stay away from it for a longer amount of time ... just think if the age had been raised to 21 all those years ago, this roller-coaster of nicotine and tobacco addiction had a better chance of not happening to me.”

The Y’s community coalition on youth substance use, formed in 2018, is focused on reducing alcohol and e-cigarette use among young people through community-based initiatives.

Other sponsors of Thursday’s event included Reality Check, a nonprofit organization that supports people recovering from drug and alcohol misuse in Jaffrey; New Futures, which offers health-related education and advocacy; and Cheshire Coalition for Tobacco Free Communities.

The next Community Coalition on Youth Substance Use meeting will be held Thursday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Monadnock Regional High School in Swanzey. Community members are welcome to attend.

Correction: The House bill that came out of committee would raise the tobacco age to 21. This was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.

China fires officials as coronavirus infections jump

BEIJING — Political officials were fired and infection cases skyrocketed in China on Thursday, reminding a nation stuck at home and scientists watching worldwide just how little is known about the coronavirus outbreak that has infected at least 60,000 and killed more than 1,300 people.

Previous numbers had been reassuring, with daily confirmations of new infections dropping from several thousand to around a thousand. Officials in Beijing, increasingly worried about the economic toll of the outbreak, urged people to go back to work. State media ran editorials about resuming international flights to China.

But on Thursday the case numbers shot up. Chinese health authorities reported 15,152 new cases of COVID-19 — the World Health Organization’s new name for the viral disease — overnight. Most of the increase came from Hubei province, the epidemic’s epicenter, where infections jumped by 14,840, more than nine times the 1,638 new cases reported there a day earlier.

Then came the purge. Beijing announced that both Wuhan and Hubei’s provincial Communist Party chiefs were fired and replaced with officials known for “stability maintenance” and closely allied with party chairman and President Xi Jinping. The sackings followed earlier dismissals including the Communist Party secretary and the director of Hubei’s health commission.

The underreporting of the breadth of the virus, which began at a seafood market in Wuhan, has been blamed on officials who suppressed information on the outbreak to save face among their superiors.

Experts say the sudden increase in the number of confirmed infections, although alarming, is a step toward identifying and containing the illness.

The new figures don’t indicate a rapid overnight spread of the virus in Hubei, but rather a change in the way patients are counted there, which may provide better access to treatment on the front lines. New cases of COVID-19 are being confirmed based on symptoms and a CT scan of the patient’s lungs. Previously, confirmations were based on time-consuming lab tests, which created huge backlogs.

Many critically sick patients with symptoms but no confirmation of infection had complained of being turned away from hospitals. An unknown number have died without having had a diagnosis confirmed. Nearly 90 percent of the new cases reported in Hubei on Thursday were “clinically diagnosed” under the new rules.

The change reveals that China had been undercounting its COVID-19 cases. It is also a troubling reminder that there is no clarity yet on the extent or severity of the outbreak.

“The picture is evolving day by day ... it is a constantly moving target,” said John Nicholls, a pathologist at the University of Hong Kong who worked on the SARS outbreak in 2003. “We really have got no idea about the true number of cases.”

Both Chinese and foreign epidemiologists believe that a large number of mild COVID-19 cases have still not been counted. The reasons abound: a shortage of tests, overwhelmed caregivers, and many infected patients whose symptoms aren’t severe enough to qualify for tests, which are not always reliable.

Wang Chen, dean of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, told Chinese media Thursday that the change in reporting requirements was “extremely necessary” because the laboratory test to detect a particular sequence of nucleic acids often failed.

“Many patients who appeared to be (infected with COVID-19) based on their epidemiological history, contact history and clinical symptoms were not able to test positive on the nucleic acid test, and were listed as ‘suspected cases,’” he said.

Hubei province’s new reporting standards are an improvement, said Benjamin Cowling, head of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. “Is it 10 mild cases for every severe case? Is it a hundred mild cases for every severe case? That makes a big difference in how we think about controlling infections,” Cowling said, adding that he hoped the rest of China would also adopt Hubei’s reporting standards.

Peng Zhiyong, an intensive care unit doctor in Wuhan, said in an interview with the Chinese outlet Caixin that initial requirements for confirming coronavirus cases, including whether a patient had visited the Wuhan seafood market, were withheld from the public, making it nearly impossible to confirm new infections as cases rose in early January.

“The diagnostic criteria were too harsh — with that criteria, it would be very difficult to diagnose anyone,” Peng said. “In this period, our hospital leadership reflected this to the health commission many times, and other hospitals were reflecting the same.”

On Jan. 18, Peng said he complained to another group of visiting experts from the National Health Commission. “This makes it very easy to miss real patients,” he’d said. “This is an infectious disease. If the diagnostic criteria are too tight, the sick people we let go will be a great risk to society.”

Only after Jan. 20, when prominent SARS scientist Zhong Nanshan announced on state TV that there was human-to-human transmission of COVID-19, did Chinese authorities take serious action to contain the outbreak.

The timing of Thursday’s political shakeup — coinciding with fresh numbers closer to Hubei’s reality — suggest that Beijing wants the newly appointed leaders to be seen as problem solvers dispatched to fix a crisis that local officials had allowed to spin out of control. Xi’s aim is to prevent further public anger and ensure “social stability.”

The goal of scientists is to get accurate data and honest information. “The confirmed cases and even the probable cases are only reflecting the tip of the iceberg,” Cowling said. “We don’t really have a precise impression of what that iceberg looks like. We just know there’s an iceberg.”

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Keene High Principal Jim Logan to leave at end of school year

After 14 years at Keene High School, the last several of which he has served as principal, Jim Logan plans to step down at the end of this academic year, school officials announced Thursday afternoon.

Logan has led Keene High since the 2014-15 year, when he was interim principal following the resignation of Lynda C. “Lynne” Wagner. Logan assumed the post officially during the 2015-16 school year.

Logan was previously director of the Cheshire Career Center, a technical- and career-education center at the high school, for eight years.

A news release from the Keene School District says Logan “has decided to pursue other endeavors and challenges” but doesn’t specify his plans. He wasn’t reachable for comment Friday morning.

“The Keene Board of Education would like to thank Jim for all of the years he has put in as the Cheshire Career Center Director and as the Principal of Keene High School,” said George Downing, chairman of the Keene school board, in the release. “Jim’s leadership and his dedication to his students and staff will be greatly missed as he has been an integral part of implementing initiatives that are in the best interest of students and that the Board has identified as priorities.”

More than 1,400 students attend Keene High from Keene, Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson, Stoddard, Sullivan, Surry, Westmoreland and Winchester, according to the school’s website.

Malay said finding Logan’s successor will be “a tall order.”

“Jim has been a huge part of the school for a long time, demonstrating his commitment to the students, staff and families of the community,” Malay said in the release. “He can often be found at many of the student activities that take place at the school as well as the broader community of Keene. Jim will be missed by many.”

The search for a new principal will begin once the position is posted, by this weekend, according to district officials.

The district will send out a survey to the public about the qualities they would like to see in Logan’s replacement, and a committee will be formed and tasked with reviewing survey results and applications, conducting interviews and making a recommendation to the superintendent.

According to the release, it is anticipated the search will conclude by early April.

Whoever succeeds Logan will be Keene High’s fourth principal within the past decade. Prior to Wagner, who held the post for two years, Alan Chmiel served in the role from 2006 to 2012.