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Region’s chamber of commerce to open Peterborough office
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PETERBOROUGH — The Greater Keene and Peterborough Chamber of Commerce plans to open an office in downtown Peterborough later this year as part of an effort to better serve its local members.

The chamber, which is headquartered on Central Square in Keene, will likely open its branch at 45 Main St. in Peterborough after Thanksgiving, President and CEO Luca Paris said Monday.

Paris, a Keene restaurateur who took over the chamber’s top job in September, said the new office will be open twice a week to start due to staffing limitations. That schedule could expand to include additional days, he said, since the Keene-based chamber now represents many businesses in the Peterborough area after merging with the local chamber late last year.

“We didn’t want to lose a presence there,” he told The Sentinel on Monday. “The idea is to have … members of the chamber team there on an ongoing basis.”

In announcing their merger last November, the Keene and Peterborough chambers pointed to COVID-related financial issues, noting that the latter organization had eliminated its two paid positions and become run completely by volunteers.

The joint entity, which represents nearly 700 member organizations, sold the former Greater Peterborough Chamber office at 10 Wilton Road in September. (The Sentinel is a chamber member.)

Paris said Monday that the chamber remains committed to its Peterborough-area members. That includes having conversations with member businesses, townofficials and residents about what role they’d like the chamber to play, he said.

Paris, who plans to work out of the new Peterborough office at least once a week, said he continued those conversations Monday during a visit to Monadnock Community Hospital.

“The more I visit Peterborough right now, the more I realize there are so many great people wanting to do things for the community,” he said. “… I’m an open book right now. I’m ready to talk.”

Paris said he’s particularly interested in restarting programs and events that have been shelved due to the pandemic, though he wants to hear about local communities’ priorities before making any decisions.

In addition to starting a branding campaign for the Monadnock Region, the chamber recently launched a new series, Chamber Night Out, to showcase its members and help connect area business leaders. The first event in the networking series was Oct. 19 at The Outlaw Brewing Co. in Winchester.

Those outings will continue in the coming months, according to Paris, who said he’s enjoyed traveling across the region in his new role.

“I’m personally excited about it because I get to meet so many new people,” he said.

Duane Towns talks with Selectman Paul Krautmann after turning in his ballot at Ward 4, Symonds Elementary School, in Keene Tuesday morning. Polls for city elections are open until 7 p.m.; anyone looking for last-minute

information, including candidate questionnaires, may visit The Sentinel’s election page at Sentinelsource.com.

'At some point the dam is going to break': NH faces shortage of public defenders

New Hampshire is facing a shortage of criminal defense attorneys to represent poor clients, as experienced lawyers quit and pandemic court delays increase caseloads for those who remain, exacerbating existing problems in the overloaded criminal defense system.

This week, the Executive Council approved the use of $2 million in American Rescue Act funds to create temporary positions for 10 new attorneys, conduct criminal defense trainings and pay contract attorneys higher administrative fees for the extra workload. Although the ability to hire new defense lawyers will have an impact, attorneys and state officials say more needs to be done to remedy the shortage.

In a report issued Wednesday, the New Hampshire Supreme Court approved several recommendations suggested by the Criminal Defense Task Force, convened by Associate Justice Patrick Donovan at the request of Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald in September to address the “acute shortage of criminal defense attorneys willing to represent indigent defendants” and “dangerously high caseloads.”

In the circuit courts, 2,000 criminal cases are awaiting appointed counsel, while hundreds of cases need to be reassigned to new lawyers.

The Supreme Court recommended implementing programs to resolve simple cases earlier in the criminal justice process, securing more funding for contract attorneys and changing rules to make it easier for lawyers to represent poor clients, along with more training, active recruitment and a one-week pause on criminal cases in January 2022. The task force also said the judicial system needs to raise public awareness about the shortage.

“I don’t think anyone thinks these recommendations are going to solve the issue,” said Robin Melone, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “They are hoping to address, in a triage way, the immediate problem.”

Melone said when COVID led to court closures and delays, the normal timeline for a criminal case lengthened while new cases piled up.

In New Hampshire, 85 percent of indigent criminal defense clients are represented by the nonprofit New Hampshire Public Defender, with 14 percent of cases handled by contract attorneys who commit to a certain number of cases a year and 1 percent taken on by court-appointed attorneys who agree to just a case or two.

Contract attorneys would normally handle cases that the NH Public Defender cannot because of conflicts of interest, but now the pressure has ramped up, with contract attorneys taking on 968 more cases in fiscal year 2021 than in the previous year.

Those lawyers are paid flat fees for different kinds of cases, like $300 for a misdemeanor case, with no funding for overhead or mileage. The Executive Council approved some temporary extra fees to compensate for the extra work.

Meanwhile, the rates for lawyers who might volunteer to take a smaller number of cases remains low, usually at $60 an hour. Maine increased its hourly rate for attorneys from $60 to $80 an hour this year.

Judicial Council Executive Director Sarah Blodgett said that criminal cases have also become more complex, due to COVID, the opioid crisis, and mental health and substance abuse issues that have been worsened by the pandemic.

At the NH Public Defender, 28 staff attorneys have left their positions in the past 14 months, echoing a trend in public defender offices around the country. Burnout from high caseloads has played a role. Although other organizations have seen pandemic job changes, the turnover among public defenders is more pressing because criminal defense is a constitutional right.

“These jobs have gotten so much harder with COVID. We’re expecting lawyers to go to jails to visit their clients and some of the jails have COVID outbreaks and it makes everything that much harder,” Blodgett said.

The departure of expert attorneys and the backlog in cases caused by pandemic delays has left hundreds of defendants waiting longer for a trial date or to be assigned to a new attorney following turnover.

“In terms of stress, and delay, not having someone to talk to shortly after they’ve been charged is a detriment,” Blodgett said. “Some cases require investigation and other experts. There’s a delay in everything to do with that case.”

While NH Public Defender’s Director of Legal Services Tracy Cavarelli said that their clients are not currently languishing in jail awaiting an attorney, the impact for people awaiting trial on bail are also serious. While waiting for delayed trials, tenants might face housing insecurity, job-seekers might get rejected by employers, and drivers may have their licenses suspended for a longer time, affecting their ability to work and travel.

“The stress related to having an open case and facing incarceration is profound,” Cavarelli said. “It has a lot of different consequences for individuals as people.”

Earlier in the year, public defender offices in Orford, Nashua, Concord, Dover and Laconia had to stop accepting some types of cases for a period of time. While a newly hired class of 16 public defenders has helped reduce the pressure, the new lawyers need significant assistance from mentors and take on smaller caseloads.

“If we don’t come up with solution now, this is going to lead to incarcerated defendants not having representation,” Cavarelli said. “We are committed to not having people who are in jail going without counsel. But at some point the dam is going to break.”

Going forward, the Judicial Council plans to ask the Legislature to raise salaries for public defenders, Blodgett said. A new public defender earns $52,950 for a difficult and stressful job, making positions less appealing to potential recruits coming out of law school in debt.

“I think our Legislature has long understood the importance of a strong indigent defense program and that’s what they’ve created and funded. I think there’s a commitment to doing what needs to be done to get us through this crisis,” Blodgett said.

Cavarelli believes broader criminal justice reform is necessary to find a lasting solution to the high caseloads for public defenders. More resources for substance abuse treatment and for programs that prevent criminal justice system involvement would reduce the pressure on public defenders, since a large percentage of their cases are for drug possession alone.

Since she started work as a public defender in New Hampshire in 2000, she has seen defense lawyers’ responsibilities for their clients multiply, as they play the roles of social workers and probation officers and make sure defendants get the necessary treatment.

“If we were able to treat those “crimes” as medical issues and not criminal matters, then that would have a significant change on the dynamic of our criminal justice system,” Cavarelli said.

General Court website gets a much-needed makeover

It just got loads easier to find a bill, contact a lawmaker, and see the week’s legislative calendar. Ditto for finding a lawmaker’s voting record and getting to the House and Senate YouTube channels.

The General Court website got quite the makeover this weekend.

Lawmakers, lobbyists, and reporters will no doubt appreciate the improvements. But advocates and residents wanting to be heard on a bill will, too.

The cluttered, hard-to-navigate homepage is gone. In four clicks, you’ve got the names and contact information for your senator and representatives. Want to know which state contracts are up for votes by the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and Executive Council?

You’ll find each agenda, with links to the contracts, in three clicks.

Anyone wanting guidance on testifying on a bill will find it under “Committees” on the homepage. Prefer to submit your thoughts in writing? That “Committees” tab will also let you email the whole committee or contact a single lawmaker.

Find out how your senator or representative voted in three clicks from the homepage. It takes just two to search what legislation they’ve proposed for the next session, and one more to find out how to reach them with your thoughts.

N.H.'s COVID-19 vaccination data hasn't been accurate since June. Why?

New Hampshire’s inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine data is now likely leading to inaccurate counting of booster doses and breakthrough cases. The state’s vaccination data hasn’t been correct since June.

In a new interview with Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, NHPR confirmed the state of New Hampshire has been relying on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data because the state’s own records are missing thousands of doses. The state’s data correction process could take months, Shibinette said.

But the commissioner also thinks the CDC’s data is becoming increasingly inaccurate. She thinks many booster doses are likely being tracked incorrectly as first shots, which could cause artificial inflation of the state’s first shot administration rate.

A separate system crash at the end of October meant the state was also unable to report how many new cases of the virus were cropping up during that time, or accurately map rates of community transmission.

With COVID-19 data a driving force behind state policy, vaccination campaigns and individual risk assessment for New Hampshire residents and local officials, inaccurate data means unreliable decisions.

Over the summer, the gap between CDC and state counts of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered grew to almost 200,000 first doses.

As of Oct. 21, the most recent data NHPR had on file from before the state disclosed its vaccine errors, state data showed 832,500 Granite Staters had received at least one dose of the vaccine, while the CDC put the same measurement at over 100,000. Translated into percentages, the state was reporting around 60 percent of Granite Staters with at least one shot, compared to the CDC’s 74 percent.

The widening gap in vaccine data between the two entities is partially due to the conclusion of the state of emergency in New Hampshire on June 11 and the earlier introduction of a new, underfunded vaccine registry system, the New Hampshire Immunization Information System, (NHIIS).

The end of the state of emergency

Commissioner Shibinette said the state could no longer collect COVID-19 vaccine data for individuals who had not been presented with the ability to opt-out of having that information collected by the state of New Hampshire, as required by state law.

Health providers who didn’t offer an opt-out option were excluded from the data migration to NHIIS to stay in compliance with the law.

Pharmacies, which are federal providers of vaccines, don’t need to provide an opt-out option when reporting data to the federal government, which means the state can no longer import that pharmacy data into NHIIS.

Missing pharmacy data is especially consequential because pharmacies like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens are some of the largest COVID-19 vaccine providers in the state.

NHPR reported on the growing gap between state and federal vaccine data during the summer. At the time, the state did not respond to multiple requests for comment about what was driving the disparity.

While state officials have long said the CDC’s data is expected to be slightly higher than their own, given the CDC’s ability to track some doses the state does not have access to, the rates should be fairly similar, which by mid-summer was no longer the case. But it was not until Oct. 27 when officials clarified they lost the ability to track pharmacy data.

When asked why officials did not publicly share that their own data was growing increasingly inaccurate until late October, over four months after the state of emergency ended, Commissioner Shibinette said “we had to dive down and figure out where the gap was growing.”

In response to the same question, a spokesperson for Gov. Chris Sununu said “NH data and CDC data was investigated in August and September to understand the source.”

But the discrepancy had been present since June. In the statement given to NHPR, Sununu’s office didn’t address the delay in the statement.

Nor did state officials clearly flag that the COVID vaccine data it released may have been unreliable. Even NHPR’s reporting from this time was based on this data, which we now know to be incomplete.

And until that gap is fixed the state has to rely on the CDC for some data. But CDC data, Commissioner Shibinette says, “isn’t perfect.”

“We don’t believe that the booster data that CDC is reporting is reflective of all the people that have gotten boosters in our state,” says Shibinette.

An immature data reporting system

New Hampshire was the last state in the country to implement a statewide, centralized immunization registry. That means working with pharmacies on efforts like an opt-out option or with the CDC on large-scale vaccine tracking are still new, and issues are emerging in real time.

Commissioner Shibinette says it would have been better for the database to have been done before the onset of a pandemic.

“Now we’re working [the database] out in the middle of the pandemic when everybody is watching all of our numbers,” she says.

Commissioner Shibinette says the state sent the CDC de-identified data, that is data without individuals’ names, to protect the privacy of Granite Staters.

But the vague data could be making it more difficult for the CDC to know if the individual getting a booster is already vaccinated, or if it’s their first shot.

Since late September, when the CDC approved Pfizer boosters, New Hampshire’s first dose count has skyrocketed to rates the state hadn’t seen since the spring. But some health care providers across the state have continued to lament low rates of first dose uptake.

Just 1.6 percent of fully-vaccinated Granite Staters have received a booster dose, according to the CDC’s map. That rate makes New Hampshire the worst state in the country for booster administration.

The combination of high rates of first dose uptake contrasting with what providers across the state are seeing and a strikingly low booster rate suggests thousands of booster shots in New Hampshire may be getting tracked by the CDC as first doses.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Breakthrough case data is also difficult to track in circumstances where the individual was vaccinated after the state of emergency ended, because of the state’s reliance on the CDC’s data.

The de-identified, nameless data that makes it hard to match an individual’s third dose with earlier doses also means it’s hard to match an individual positive case with their vaccination status.

Inaccurate information isn’t the only penalty New Hampshire is experiencing due to a lack of an immunization registry. Earlier this year, the state relied on a glitchy, federal system to schedule appointments for older residents.

Many health providers in the state say NHIIS is time-consuming and complicated. They have to manually enter their own data collection into the system. For some smaller doctor’s offices, the paperwork burden is part of the reason they aren’t offering COVID-19 vaccines in their practices.

A funding breakdown

Funding to rectify vaccine data issues and support providers transitioning to using NHIIS was at the heart of the $27 million in federal funding rejected by the Executive Council last month.

The larger of the two contracts, for $22.5 million, was largely focused on improving NHIIS and had a section on creating a link between the registry and other systems. Jim Potter, with the New Hampshire Medical Society, called that funding crucial for New Hampshire health providers trying to use the new system.

A successful linkage of multiple systems, would also help the state track COVID-19 vaccine data from pharmacies and consequently, accurately track vaccination data, said Shibinette.

With the funding rejected by the Executive Council, Shibinette said she’s looking at alternative sources, like American Rescue Plan dollars, a strategy that did prove effective last week.

“When the money got rejected, it became very, very obvious that there was no quick resolution,” she said.