After a pause of more than one year, New Hampshire’s work-search requirement for people receiving unemployment benefits will reinstate next month. New Hampshire Employment Security had suspended, since the start of the pandemic, the policy that requires recipients of benefits to be actively searching for work while receiving benefits. But at a press conference Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu said, with job fairs and other employment support programs soon to be fully operational to assist residents re-entering the workforce, it made sense to reinstate the work requirement beginning May 23. “Those unable to return to their old jobs can utilize the state’s job boards, the job fairs, to find employment that is right for them,” Sununu said. New Hampshire’s unemployment rate in March was 3 percent, half the national rate and slightly higher than the rate at the onset of the pandemic, at 2.7 percent. State health officials reported 515 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, including more than 100 cases identified at the federal prison in Berlin. The prison outbreak has now grown to 175 resident cases, plus four staff members. The only other active institutional outbreak in the state is also in Coos County, at the county-run nursing home, where seven residents and nine staff members have tested positive. One new death related to COVID-19 was also reported Thursday. To date, 1,274 people have died from the coronavirus in New Hampshire since the start of the pandemic. Officials said that 47 percent of state residents have now received a first vaccine dose. Slightly more than a quarter of New Hampshire residents are now fully vaccinated.
As of this week, any adult is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in New Hampshire. That includes seasonal residents, out of state college students, and other non-residents. Sununu said Thursday that between 10,000 and 12,000 non-residents have so far registered for an appointment. He said that was far short of the number state health officials anticipated.
Every adult is now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in New Hampshire. But there’s still a long way to go to reach the entire population. That’s why public health workers across the state are trying to connect with those who may have trouble accessing the vaccine — and those who aren’t sure they want one in the first place.
That’s now playing out at places like the community center on Central Avenue in Dover. Normally, it provides support for residents who need help finding an apartment search or applying for government benefits. But one Friday afternoon earlier this month, it was transformed into a pop-up vaccine clinic.
Christina Laughton of Somersworth and dozens of others came through the doors. Laughton heard about it through her local food pantry.
“They just told me to show up: ‘you’ll go there, and they’ll take care of you,’ ” Laughton said. “So, here I am!”
That “just show up” mentality is just what this clinic was going for. It was one of several that day organized by Community Action Partnership, or CAP, of Strafford County, which were aimed at making it easier for the region’s vulnerable populations to get a vaccine.
The Strafford County effort is part of a push across the state to get vaccines to people with all kinds of barriers: a lack of transportation, transient housing, limited English proficiency and more.
Betsey Parker, the organization’s CEO, said that while fixed sites at state-run clinics or pharmacy chains work for many people, for others, “that access is really challenging.”
Parker said instead of just relying on people to come to where the shots are, they’re bringing the shots into the community: going into encampments where those experiencing homelessness may be living, partnering with local soup kitchens, and holding a clinic at a nearby needle exchange.
That “meeting people where they’re at” strategy was evident right after the clinic in Dover, when Parker’s team found themselves with extra vaccine doses. They decided to take them to a nearby low-income mobile home park.
While the goal of the trip was to quickly get shots into arms, the clinic also highlighted another challenge the state is up against: vaccine hesitancy.
As the public health team asked around, they got a lot of no’s. Ultimately, there’s a big difference between offering people shots and getting them to say yes to a vaccine. A recent University of New Hampshire poll showed that a quarter of Granite Staters say they probably will not or almost certainly will not get a vaccine.
That was the case for Doreen Allen: She was at the park when the public health team was offering the extra doses, but decided not to get one.
After the clinic wrapped up, she sat on a friend’s lawn, and explained her reasoning: “I just have never had it done; I just don’t know what it’s going to do to me.”
Although Allen was nervous about getting a shot, she was also worried about catching COVID-19.
“I just started as a dishwasher, so I work four days a week, and I’m around a lot of people,” she said.
Allen also had a lot of questions around the vaccine: Does it come with a price tag? Will she be able to return to work right away?
While side effects like tiredness and chills, may prevent some people from going to work for a day or two, the vaccine is free. But the impromptu nature of this clinic meant vaccine education wasn’t a focus, and Allen didn’t talk to anyone about her concerns.
Elsewhere in Strafford County, CAP is working with community leaders who are doing that work. One of them is Sandra Pontoh, reverend at the Maranatha Indonesian United Church of Christ in Madbury. She’s used her strong ties to the local Indonesian community to help coordinate four vaccine clinics so far.
“I’m not saying that I’m an important person,” she said, “but someone that they can trust.”
When the clinics first started, there was a lot more hesitancy. People came, she said, but they were nervous. Now, she laughs, “It’s like a party!”
So what changed? To put it simply, Pontoh said, the word is spreading: not just that people can trust the vaccine, but also that they can trust the vaccine process.
Pontoh and others have tried to make sure that immigrants, for example, know that they won’t put themselves at risk for deportation by signing up for a shot. The clinics she coordinates allow attendees to bypass ID requirements that exist at the state’s fixed sites. Clinics are staffed with Indonesian volunteers and a translator.
All that, she says, helps people feel more comfortable getting a vaccine.
As the vaccine rollout continues, the efforts to work with community leaders, and offer vaccine education will be needed in fighting COVID-19 and access disparities. Because right now, not everyone has a Sandra Pontoh.
Keene’s community power plan, a key part of the city’s goal to reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, will head to the City Council next month after receiving a unanimous recommendation from a committee Thursday.
The council’s five-member Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee recommended the plan at its meeting that night after hearing a presentation on the proposal.
Under a community power arrangement, the municipal government, rather than a utility, sources electricity for local consumers. That gives the municipality more control over the power supply, allowing it to seek lower-cost or greener options. A utility like Eversource continues to maintain transmission lines and deliver the electricity.
Under Keene’s plan, consumers could choose between several different pricing options, each with a different degree of renewable energy.
Recent changes to state law have made such programs possible in New Hampshire. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said Keene is leading the pack in implementing its plan, which would require approval from the N.H. Public Utilities Commission.
“I hate to say it, but I’m a little bit competitive, and on the track that we’re in right now, we’ll be the first one to get a community power plan in front of the PUC,” Dragon said at Thursday’s meeting. “There’s one other community that’s not far behind us.”
A number of other towns and cities in New Hampshire are considering community power programs, including Harrisville, which is scheduled to vote on its plan at town meeting May 22. Cheshire County officials have also expressed interest in community power, as have advocates in Peterborough.
The community power program would be Keene’s first major policy initiative implementing the ambitious clean-energy goals the City Council adopted in January 2019 — shifting the entire city to 100 percent renewable energy for electricity by 2030, and for transportation and heating by 2050. Earlier this year, the council approved a detailed roadmap for working toward those goals.
The city’s draft community power plan envisions four options that customers can choose from. The cheapest would pay for the bare minimum of renewables — the roughly 22 percent, as of this year, required under New Hampshire’s renewable portfolio standard law. That would match the level of renewables in Eversource’s default service, according to the plan.
By default, community-power customers would be enrolled in a second option, which would come with somewhat more renewable power — perhaps an extra 10 percent to start — at a price competitive with Eversource’s default rate.
For customers who want to pay more to further boost clean energy, the plan would offer two additional options — up to 50 percent and 100 percent above the renewable portfolio standard, respectively. Customers can also opt out of the program entirely.
“The idea is to provide kind of a range of options that meet people’s needs for using renewable energy and for cost,” Patrick Roche of Good Power LP, a consultant working with the city, explained at Thursday’s meeting.
Peter Hansel of Keene, who chaired the volunteer committee tasked with developing the plan, said the group’s priorities included cost savings, public buy-in and the flexibility to adapt to new technologies in addition to promoting clean energy.
In energy markets, the use of renewables is tracked with certificates called renewable energy credits, or RECs. Once it’s flowing through the grid, electricity produced by solar or wind is indistinguishable from any other electricity, so it’s not possible to determine the literal source of the electricity someone’s using, Roche explained. Buying RECs is how entities claim the credit for a certain amount of renewable power.
Roche said the city would obtain RECs from sources on the New England power grid, or nearby regions that export power to New England, to help spur more development of renewables in this part of the country. The program would also aim to get power from as close to Keene as possible.
Dragon said the city would aim expect to increase the renewable energy it buys over time.
“This plan also allows us to gradually increase our renewable option, and move toward our 100 percent renewable goal for the city,” she said. “It’s really the only way for us to do that.”
The specific prices and levels of renewable energy would be determined through the bidding process. Dragon said the plan gives the city “maximum flexibility” to evaluate bidders to make sure their rates are competitive with Eversource, and also take advantage of timing to secure better prices.
The City Council would have to approve the community power plan and any amendments to it. The city’s consultants — Good Power and Standard Power LLC — would handle day-to-day operations, overseen by the city manager. (Their fees would be included in the contract with the energy supplier, rather than coming out of tax dollars.)
Councilors asked a handful of mostly process-focused questions Thursday before voting on the plan.
Keene resident Robert King, president of Ashuelot River Hydro Inc., told councilors the program may be able to draw on existing local resources, like his company’s three area hydro plants, for some of its energy supply.
He also praised the plan for stating that the city will use the community power program to promote energy efficiency.
“Which is always the cheapest, easiest form of energy to come up with,” he said. “We call it nega-watts, as opposed to mega-watts.”
Cheshire Medical Center patients now have a round-the-clock option for virtual urgent care visits, thanks to a new initiative from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health.
Last month, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health launched a virtual urgent care service that is also open to people without providers in the system and is available 24/7.
“The pandemic made virtual care necessary for safety reasons, but patients soon learned to appreciate the convenience of seeing their providers virtually,” Mary Lowry, administrative director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Connected Care, said in a news release Wednesday announcing the new telehealth service. “... It is a simple, private, low-stress experience.”
With D-HH Virtual Urgent Care, patients can choose to see the next available provider or schedule a visit later that same day, according to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health. Providers are typically available within 15 minutes, the release notes.
Patients can request a virtual visit for more than 30 conditions, such as cold, flu, allergies, rashes, urinary tract infections and gastrointestinal issues. Medications can also be prescribed for patients when needed, the release says.
The virtual visits are a self-pay service, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock will not bill a patient’s insurance, according to Lowry of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health. Patients will be charged a $59 fee for the appointment, although she said a patient’s health insurer may reimburse that cost.
Since last spring, Cheshire Medical Center patients needing non-emergency urgent primary care have been able to connect with a provider by phone or video, rather than driving to the Keene hospital’s main campus on Court Street. That virtual service is available during walk-in hours for people with primary-care providers within the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health system.
Cheshire Medical’s own urgent primary-care service is open for walk-ins and virtual services Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and holidays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Urgent primary care serves about 12,000 patients annually, according to hospital spokeswoman Heather Atwell.
Most insurances are accepted, she noted, but that doesn’t mean certain insurance providers will cover the appointment’s cost. For questions about coverage, Atwell recommends that patients contact their insurance provider directly.
Monadnock Region residents can also receive urgent telehealth care through ConvenientMD on Winchester Street in Keene, according to spokesman Adam Rosenthal.
The service is offered seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., but starting May 1, Rosenthal said the hours will be extended to 10 p.m.
To book an appointment through Cheshire Medical’s program, call 354-5484. For D-HH Virtual Urgent Care, patients can call 833-599-0447. Those interested in ConvenientMD’s service can call 833-263-0131.