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Cheshire Medical, county see increase in COVID-19 testing

Amid the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene has seen an increased demand for testing this month.

“Our numbers are extremely high,” said Dr. Christopher LaRocca, a family physician who oversees the hospital’s testing program.

The local Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate — the only hospital locally doing community COVID-19 testing, in addition to pharmacies and urgent cares — has been administering tests on its Court Street campus since August 2020.

At the beginning of this summer, LaRocca said, Cheshire Medical was giving out about 300 tests per week at its drive-thru site. But throughout September, the hospital has been averaging more than 800 tests weekly, similar to what it saw this winter during COVID-19’s second surge statewide.

Cheshire County as a whole has seen a similar increase in testing.

The seven-day average for the week of Aug. 15 was about 156 tests, according to data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. By Sept. 2, that average had jumped to about 835 tests — the highest peak in the past 90 days.

This hasn’t translated to a significant rise in vaccination rates, however, which have hovered around 50 percent statewide since June.

The county’s relatively low vaccination rates, coupled with the spike in cases starting in late August, are likely the reasons for the testing surge, LaRocca said.

As of Thursday, about half of the county had been fully vaccinated, the state health department’s data show, compared to about 54 percent across New Hampshire. Hancock and Harrisville have the highest rates locally, both at 67.2 percent, with the lowest in Rindge at 35.2 percent.

Students heading back to in-person learning this fall could also be helping drive the hospital’s testing increase, LaRocca said.

While local school districts don’t require testing, it is still encouraged if students are potentially exposed to the viral disease.

And since school began, there has been a significant increase in the number of children getting tested, as well as how many kids are testing positive, according to hospital spokeswoman Heather Atwell. There is also an uptick in testing due to workplace exposures, she added.

Anyone with exposure to the virus, LaRocca said, should be getting tested.

According to current state guidance, he said anyone who has developed symptoms of the viral disease — regardless of vaccination status — should be tested.

Additionally, if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, but do not develop symptoms, you should be tested between three to five days after exposure.

People do not need to be patients of Cheshire Medical to be tested there, according to Atwell. Appointments are required, though.

Two types of PCR tests are offered on site — saliva and nasal swab. Both tests have the same level of sensitivity, LaRocca said, but the nasal swab tends to have a slightly faster turnaround time for results.

“But they are both equally effective in terms of getting the right diagnosis,” he said.

To request a testing appointment, visit bit.ly/cheshiretests or call the hospital’s testing information line at 354-6700 and leave a voicemail. Soon, Atwell added, people will be able to self-schedule their COVID-19 tests through their myDH.org account.

Cheshire Medical is also encouraging community members to consider other testing options, like pharmacies and urgent care facilities, to help lighten the hospital’s load.

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Hundred Nights defends stance on guests, employees on sex-offender registry.

Hundred Nights officials say the organization’s new Keene shelter will help keep guests safe, with men staying on a different floor than women and families.

That is an important element of the nonprofit’s planned move to Water Street, according to Executive Director Mindy Cambiar, who has said the shelter’s housed more families in recent years. The new configuration is meant to help quell concerns over Hundred Nights’ policy of admitting people with past convictions for sex crimes and other offenses, which Cambiar and multiple board members say is key to helping them reintegrate into the community.

That policy has prompted a spate of vitriolic attacks online against the organization — which also employs at least two registered sex offenders — in recent weeks.

In keeping with Hundred Nights’ mission to help anyone at risk of homelessness, Cambiar said it rarely turns people away when any of its 24 overnight beds are available. The organization does have a screening process for new guests, as required to get state funding, and warns everyone in the shelter that its residents may include people with a criminal record, she said.

Still, Hundred Nights’ intake procedures appear less stringent than those at other area shelters.

Guests arriving at the 17 Lamson St. facility are asked if they’re on New Hampshire’s sex offender registry — a database with the names and addresses of people who have committed sex crimes — or on probation for any other past conviction, according to Cambiar. Hundred Nights staff also call Keene police to check if the person has any active arrest warrants, she said.

Anyone in the state registry’s third, and highest, tier — typically people who have committed high-level or multiple offenses, especially against a child, and who are on the list for life — is turned away, Cambiar said. Only a couple Tier III offenders have requested shelter in her eight years at Hundred Nights, she said.

Cambiar acknowledged, though, that staff don’t check the registry for the names of all potential guests, instead relying on new arrivals to be honest about their criminal record. She said local police, who are notified of registered sex offenders in their community, can help Hundred Nights identify anyone on the registry, adding that anyone caught lying about their sex-offender status can face prison time.

“Most people are brutally honest when they come to our door,” she said. “… I don’t think that people come here and try to hide their pasts.”

But a local woman familiar with Hundred Nights’ intake process said she knows of at least one former guest who didn’t disclose he was on the registry when he lived at the shelter.

“There was no actual verification, to my knowledge, that anyone was or was not a registered sex offender or about their criminal background,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous over concerns she could face consequences for speaking out. “There was no criminal background check.”

Acknowledging that registered sex offenders need housing, the woman said “it’s not as simple” as labeling people on the registry as “evil.” But, she said, changes are needed to keep other Hundred Nights guests safe.

Emergency shelters run by Southwestern Community Services and the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention don’t admit registered sex offenders, according to officials with those organizations. Unlike at Hundred Nights, staff members there check the names of all potential guests against the state registry, the officials said.

Southwestern Community Services, which also offers housing aid and runs the local Head Start program, does provide shelter to people with “extensive” criminal records, CEO Beth Daniels told The Sentinel in an email. But the organization turns away sex offenders and people with active arrest warrants for “the health and safety of both other shelter guests and staff,” Daniels said.

“We have family shelters and some of our buildings are in close proximity to one another,” she said. “With limited staffing capacity, we have parameters such as these in place to align with our capacity.”

MCVP Executive Director Robin Christopherson said the Keene-based organization turns away sex offenders because its shelter — for survivors of domestic and sexual violence — has communal living and often houses families. She and Daniels both declined to comment on Hundred Nights’ intake procedures.

Four people on New Hampshire’s sex offender registry list Hundred Nights as their primary address — though Cambiar noted that some unsheltered people get their mail at the facility but don’t sleep there.

They include the shelter’s operations director, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to two counts of criminal solicitation, a felony that penalizes people for asking someone else to commit a crime, according to court records. He was charged in the same case with possessing child sexual abuse images, but that charge was dropped, the records show.

Hundred Nights conducts background checks for all employees and is aware that the operations director, who was hired in 2013 and lives at the shelter, is on the registry, Cambiar said.

She said no guests have ever told her they felt unsafe around either him or a staff member at the organization’s housing resource center who was convicted last year of indecent exposure, a felony, according to court records. The resource center worker, who prosecutors said exposed himself around a minor in Claremont at least twice, was barred from any unsupervised contact with children as part of a 2019 bail order in that case.

Cambiar defended Hundred Nights’ hiring policies, saying all its employees have “demonstrated a commitment to the mission” and, referring to the operations director, that it upsets her that people “keep questioning his abilities.”

“He wouldn’t still be here if he wasn’t doing an excellent job,” she said.

Hundred Nights began housing unsheltered families in 2016, according to Cambiar, who said the second-floor shelter is “far too busy for anybody to be alone, ever.” Most complaints that the organization gets about its guests involve petty disputes, such as a fight or theft, she said.

Signs posted at Hundred Nights also warn that shelter guests may have a criminal record. Touting the safety protocols in place there, Cambiar said staff stay up overnight to monitor the facility, that its private family room can be locked from the inside and that children can’t be left unattended.

“We have always, always done whatever we need to do to make sure that everybody is as safe as possible in the shelter,” she said. “That hasn’t changed since I’ve been here.”

The woman familiar with Hundred Nights’ operations said the organization once split the family room in half, using a folding partition, and had other guests sleeping in beds on the opposite side. On one occasion, she knew one of those guests to be a registered sex offender, she said.

“It’s the same common spaces,” she said of the shelter. “The family room, you open the door and you’re walking out in between bunk beds in the men’s section. It’s not as if it’s a whole separate entity.”

Cambiar explained that the registered sex offender who stayed in the family room was romantically involved with a woman staying in that room with her young child. That woman insisted that he be allowed to sleep there, Cambiar said.

Still, the local woman familiar with Hundred Nights’ operations said she’s most concerned that its guests aren’t notified when someone on the sex offender registry is staying at the shelter.

“The problem is that the other people in the shelter, particularly families or women, do not know that those people are there … which means that they cannot make an informed decision as to whether they want to be there,” she said.

Hundred Nights’ planned new shelter is designed with those safety concerns in mind, Cambiar noted. Staff there would still be awake overnight to enforce facility rules, she said.

“We want people to be safe,” she said. “That’s always been part of the philosophy here.”

Hundred Nights officials say their choice to admit people with past convictions for sex crimes and other criminal activity helps keep the broader community safe, too.

If those people were barred from the shelter, they’d likely be sleeping in tents and spending more time roaming the city, including among local businesses, according to Cheshire County jail Superintendent Doug Iosue, who serves on Hundred Nights’ board of directors.

“I think it’s the knee-jerk reactions … that assume that if we don’t house them, they will go away,” he said, noting that people on probation can’t leave the area. “There’s really no reason to think that will happen.”

Allowing sex offenders and other people with a history of violence to stay at Hundred Nights also helps police track their whereabouts, Iosue said. The organization also has resources to help them reintegrate safely into the community.

“That actually is safer than ducking our heads in the sand and reacting out of emotion, stigma and discrimination,” he said.

Past offenders need a stable living situation, Iosue argued, noting that research shows those without stable housing are more likely to commit further crimes.

But finding housing can be extremely difficult for registered sex offenders, according to Elliott Berry, housing project director at N.H. Legal Assistance.

To start, anyone on a lifetime registry is prohibited from living in federally assisted housing. And private landlords can reject potential tenants based on their sex-offender status or any other criminal record, Berry said.

“If you are on a lifetime registry, your only hope is a landlord that either doesn’t check [that list] or doesn’t care,” he said, adding that those units are often of poor quality.

Housing insecurity makes it difficult to stabilize one’s daily life, such as by finding employment and accessing mental-health treatment, Berry noted.

“All the normal things that a person needs to have a normal life are just blown up by homelessness,” he said.

House Democrats vote to legalize abortion nationwide

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday voted to legalize abortion nationwide until fetal viability, and even though the legislation is almost certain to fail in the Senate, it marks a historic victory for abortion rights supporters following a decades-long fight.

The 218-211 vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act is the first the House has ever held to set a federal legal standard on abortion, and the first time in nearly 30 years that the House has approved what advocates consider a major proactive abortion rights bill.

Texas’ recent ban on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy has galvanized Democrats to be more forceful in their support for abortion rights and confident in the political upside of the issue.

It is a tide that has been slowly turning over the last decade, amid the election of more Democratic women to Congress, the decline of centrist Democrats who oppose abortion and the proliferation of GOP-led abortion restrictions at the state level.

“We’ve long been supporters of Roe vs. Wade,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We haven’t been able to codify it because we never had a Democratic, pro-choice majority [in the House] with a Democratic president, and now we do.”

The Texas law — which bans the procedure only two weeks after a person could typically know of a pregnancy — allows any civilian to sue anyone who helps someone access an abortion. It has served as a wake-up call to even Congress’ most ardent supporters of abortion rights, spurring the House vote to get the right to abortion enshrined into federal law.

“We cannot rely on [Supreme Court Justices] Amy Coney Barrett or Brett Kavanaugh to confirm our rights for us,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who authored the bill. “Congress must protect the rights of women and pregnant people in every ZIP Code, putting an end to an attack on abortion once and for all.”

Since the Supreme Court allowed the law to go into effect, several Democrats, including moderates, rushed to join the bill, Chu said.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who is personally opposed to abortion and over his career has had a mixed voting record on the issue, said the court’s decision to allow Texas’ law to go into effect prompted him to “evolve” on abortion rights.

“No issue has confounded me more than abortion throughout my years of public service,” he wrote in the Providence Journal. “Faced with the reality that Roe might no longer be the law of the land in a few months, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot support a reality where extremist state legislators can dictate women’s medical decisions.”

Even when Democrats have controlled the House in recent decades, there were still dozens of rank-and-file Democrats who opposed abortion, discouraging Democratic leaders from holding votes on the issue. The 2018 election marked a noticeable increase in the number of Democrats from politically contentious swing districts who leaned into abortion in their campaigns.

“It’s not a coincidence that we’ve seen more Democrats being comfortable discussing abortion rights as we’ve seen more women be elected,” said Kristen Hernandez, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, a group that supports Democratic women who back abortion rights.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, who represents the Houston-area seat once held by former President George H.W. Bush, started her 2018 campaign with an ad featuring the Planned Parenthood facility where she, as a high school volunteer, tried to block antiabortion protesters.

“I’m very comfortable talking about it because I feel like our voice has not been heard,” Fletcher said in an interview. “Abortion has become a wedge issue that’s used to win elections instead of to govern responsibly and to acknowledge the real and fundamental rights of every person in this country to define our own destiny.”

Abortion rights supporters expect the drumbeat to get only louder ahead of the 2022 midterm election, especially if the Supreme Court issues a high-profile abortion decision next summer.

“Younger generations have just taken for granted that birth control and abortion were part of the continuation of women’s health care,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. “This is so stark and egregious that my daughter’s generation has woken up and realized that the freedoms they have enjoyed are now going to be taken away from them by a bunch of politicians.”

Although abortion rights supporters have been raising alarm bells about the growing threat to access for years, particularly as former President Donald Trump’s appointees were confirmed to the Supreme Court, the Texas decision startled them — a sentiment that could carry over to the ballot box next year.

“This is something that women see happening to them right now and are willing to get engaged to make sure that they’re protected,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., another potentially vulnerable Democrat who sees no political downside to the vote.

A small number of Republicans, including Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, have distanced themselves from the private citizens’ role of Texas’ law, as well as the lack of an exception for cases of rape and incest, raising questions of whether the law will be a political liability for some Republican candidates in the midterm.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an advocacy group that opposes abortion, argues that Texas’ law will be forgotten as soon as the Supreme Court rules on a separate abortion case out of Mississippi over a 15-week abortion ban. In December, the court will hear arguments in the case, Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and a ruling would be expected by June.

“No one will remember this bill after the Dobbs decision comes down when there will be more direct and traditional approaches in the law that reflect the will of the people,” Dannenfelser said. “Even in a few months leading up to the Dobbs decision and after oral arguments, we’ll be seeing what states actually want to do” if the court grants states the opportunity to set their own abortion laws.

As recently as 2009, despite a sizable Democratic majority in the House, the chamber did not have a majority of abortion rights supporters. There were 19 Democrats so adamant in their opposition to abortion that they signed a public letter saying any government health plan they supported would need to exclude abortion. Only one remains in Congress.

Since then, abortion has become starkly partisan, The political parties and outside political groups have grown more militant in excluding members who don’t take the party’s position on abortion.

The last House Republicans who supported abortion rights even occasionally, Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, left Congress in 2018. There are two Republicans in the Senate who have supported abortion rights, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.

Democrats have similarly closed ranks. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is thought to be the last Democrat in the House who opposes abortion.

Former Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., lost a hotly contested primary in 2020 and even lost the support of some of his fellow Democrats over his abortion position. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who represented a very Republican district, lost his election in 2020 as well. In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia identify as opposing abortion.

The Women’s Health Protection Act would prohibit states from enacting prohibitions on abortion until fetal viability, which is typically 24 weeks. Abortion would be legal after that point if the patient’s life or health were at stake. The bill’s supporters say it would “codify” the Supreme Court’s Roe decision legalizing abortion.

The bill would also preempt hundreds of state abortion restrictions that advocates say have unduly hindered access, such as requirements that physicians hold credentials at a local hospital or conduct abortions in surgical facilities.Opponents of the bill say it would threaten existing protections for health care workers who oppose abortion and do not want to take part in performing them, as well as limits on government funding of abortion.

“The Women’s Health Protection Act is designed to remove all legal protections for unborn children on both the federal and state levels,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life.

In the Senate, leadership has not yet determined whether the bill will come up for a vote. Democrats narrowly control the 50-50 chamber because of the tiebreaking vote of the vice president, but there are only 48 public supporters.

Two Democrats, Casey and Manchin, have not signed on to the bill. Collins said she opposes the bill because it goes too far but added she is discussing drafting an alternative to codify the Roe decision. Murkowski has not taken a public position.