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Local hospitals say they are prepared for surge in coronavirus cases

COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire are at a record high. Even so, area hospital officials say they are prepared, taking what they’ve learned since the start of the pandemic to stay ahead of the surge.

“We are definitely in a better position than we were in March,” said Dr. Aalok Khole, infectious-disease physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene.

In mid-August, new cases in New Hampshire hit a low, dropping from their May peak of about 100 a day to fewer than 20, according to a Sentinel analysis of state health data. Cases rose again gradually through September before increasing sharply in October.

New Hampshire is testing far more than in the spring, but state health officials have said that does not fully explain the recent rise in known cases.

As of Wednesday, 3,767 active cases were known in the state, with at least 150 of them in Cheshire County. Hospitalizations remain lower than in the spring, but have also been trending up, with 91 COVID-19 patients in Granite State hospitals as of Wednesday, up from 16 a month ago, according to state health data.

These higher rates of cases haven’t translated to significantly more patients at local hospitals, though.

At Cheshire Medical, Khole said the case load hasn’t been “overwhelming as of yet.” The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate has had 22 COVID-19 inpatients since March, he added, including New Hampshire and Vermont residents.

Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough also hasn’t seen a rise in cases recently, according to President and CEO Cynthia McGuire. She declined to say how many COVID-19 cases the hospital has had to date.

Both hospitals referred a Sentinel reporter to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services for the current number of COVID-19 patients at each facility.

Spokesman Jake Leon declined to share these numbers last week, saying in an email, “The number of COVID-19 patients at a specific hospital may be too small to protect patient privacy and confidentiality.”

However, he added that Cheshire County’s hospitalizations remain low. As of Wednesday, Leon said only 14 county residents had been hospitalized for COVID-19 to date.

Both the Keene and Peterborough hospitals say they’re confident in their safety protocols, which were implemented at the start of the pandemic, such as stricter visitor policies and requiring mask wearing and social distancing.

And if the hospitals do get overwhelmed, they say both facilities have surge plans in place to serve patients properly.

Monadnock Community Hospital is able to hold up to 40 COVID-19 patients, McGuire said, depending on the availability of staff. If more need treatment, she said the hospital has arrangements with Cheshire Medical and Catholic Medical Center in Manchester to transfer patients.

“Everyone in the state is working really closely together,” she said.

Cheshire Medical President and CEO Dr. Don Caruso said the hospital doesn’t have a specific cap on COVID-19 patients. Khole echoed this, saying any bed is available for these patients, unless there is a significant surge.

Until that threshold is hit, Khole said any floor “that can provide care for these patients,” such as ones equipped with ventilators and other necessary equipment, is available.

The hospital will split into non-COVID-19 and COVID-19 sections if needed, Khole said, to minimize virus exposure for both patients and staff.

He and McGuire also said the challenges the hospitals — and community — face are different than before.

Back in March, when the pandemic gained steam in the Granite State and beyond, hospitals were struggling with limited testing supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), according to Khole.

The lull in COVID-19 cases this summer allowed for hospitals both to stock up on PPE and testing kits and have a better plan if materials get low again.

“Having all these guardrails in place enabled us to keep providing safe patient care, which we didn’t have the ability to do when we first started,” Khole said.

McGuire said Monadnock Community Hospital gets weekly PPE deliveries and feels “very well supplied at the moment.”

Cheshire Medical also feels well stocked, according to Khole, who said the hospital has continued to conserve the equipment as much as possible to build a repository.

But now with low materials being a non-issue, he added that the real concern with the latest surge is COVID-19 fatigue.

“People, and [hospital] staff included, are tired of masking and other things ... We know it’s a challenge, but if we stop doing that, we will be back at square one,” he said.

McGuire similarly said people need to stay wary of gathering, even with the holidays fast approaching.

“[During] the holidays we all want to be with our family,” she said. “But we should be cautious.”

If gathering, it’s best to do so outside when possible — as it’s harder for the virus to be transmitted — while wearing masks and social distancing, both Khole and McGuire said. And if you can, a virtual holiday visit is best, Khole noted.

In addition to what each hospital has learned from months of heftier safety protocols, the key to tackling another wave is to continue with conservative measures, McGuire added.

“We need to be as safe as we can be,” she said. “It’s the number one thing we can do.”

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Newport teen collects letters of support for nursing home dealing with outbreak

NEWPORT — When Woodlawn Care Center announced its COVID-19 outbreak in late October, Maddie Miller knew she needed to act.

The senior at Newport High spent her summer as an activities aide with the residents of the Newport nursing home. She originally saw the job mainly as a way to get around visitor limitations to see her grandmother, Kay. But it turned into days spent playing bingo, making crafts and taking walks while forming relationships with the residents.

“I went into it thinking I was just going to spend time with my grandma, and I ended up making pretty strong connections with the residents,” she said.

Miller — the co-leading scorer on this fall’s Newport field hockey team — decided to put out a Facebook call on Nov. 7 asking community members for letters, drawings or small paper items that can be sent in a letter for her to deliver. She also asked the Newport School District to assist in her effort.

As of Monday, three residents at Woodlawn had died of COVID-19, and the active cases included 33 residents, 19 employees and one contractor at the Newport nursing home. Three Woodlawn residents were hospitalized, though nine residents and four employees had recovered.

Miller had been helping out at Woodlawn on the weekends until the outbreak began. Now, she’s looking for ways to provide assistance from the outside.

“It’s hard not being able to see all the residents,” Miller said. “I’ve gotten a lot of letters from kids at the high school and elementary school. A lot of the teachers at the elementary school are doing morning activities with the kids and writing letters.”

The idea to send notes and drawings of support dates to May when students from the Newport Montessori School sent in letters to the residents. Miller’s job was to hand them out and read to those who couldn’t, and she recalled the residents’ joy in hearing the words of support. They soon after sent thank-you letters.

Chris Martin, the nursing home’s administrator, said some of his best workers are family members of those who live in the home. He reached out to Miller because he knew she would be a good fit, and the opportunity to see her grandmother wasn’t something she’d turn down.

“Being isolated and having to deal with maybe having COVID, which for many of our residents have a high mortality rate, can leave a heavy burden,” Martin said. “Knowing that the community is thinking of them and sharing letters helps. I really think it’s essential for mental health and knowing that people care.”

Miller’s initiative has extended beyond classrooms of the Newport School District, including a batch from a group of 6th-graders at Perkins Academy in Marlow.

Sandra Cherry at Universal Physical Therapy has put up a station in her waiting room where visitors can leave a note that Cherry can pass along. And Cinnamon Street, a child care center in Newport, has had its kids draw pictures for the residents at Woodlawn.

“The residents, because I started working there in May, they never knew what I actually looked like,” Miller said. “For most of the summer, I had a mask and a [face] shield on. It was crazy; I would go in, and people would ask who I was.”

Miller’s school life is pretty busy. She’s the treasurer of student council, the president of Health Occupations Students of America, and a member of the National Honor Society and the National Technical Honor Society.

She’s currently taking three classes, which include an emergency medical technician class run through the school. Once it is completed, she can take her boarding exam in the spring and have her EMT license.

“She was relentless in her pursuit [to get letters for Woodlawn],” Newport High Principal Shannon Martin said. “She thought full-district; she asked for middle school and elementary involvement. I don’t always get kids who think like that districtwide involvement.”

Miller is the daughter of Tigers athletic director Jeff Miller, and her father has had plenty to be proud of about his daughter’s athletic skills.

Maddie Miller set the Newport field hockey program’s single-season scoring record with 14 goals a year ago. She averaged 5.4 points per game last winter in basketball, and this fall she netted 10 goals in field hockey during a shortened season.

“Of the 10 seniors I had this year, she’s grown the most as a player and a person,” Newport field hockey coach Steve Christensen said. “If she’s not the most unselfish player I’ve ever coached, she’s definitely top three. She never cared who scored or who got the assist, but the fact the team was winning. The team was first; Maddie Miller was second.”

Miller said she’ll continue collecting letters and cards to deliver to Woodlawn, and for her future she plans to become a pediatrician. Tufts and Boston College are top of her list for pre-med.

“I’ve always wanted to be a pediatrician,” Miller said. “But this has definitely sparked the need for me, because I just feel like so many people left the medical field when the pandemic started. It’s not easy to work during a pandemic, but I saw the need for health care workers and that’s something that’s super-important to me.

“I’m in high school; there’s only so much I can do right now. But I’m trying to help in the ways that I can.”

As forms go unfilled by parents, schools could lose millions of dollars in state aid
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The coronavirus pandemic has led to a nationwide expansion of the free and reduced lunch program for K-12 students, but unfilled paperwork could mean districts miss out on millions of dollars for low-income students next year.

The glitch is an unintended consequence of the country’s meals expansion efforts, which in previous years required parents to complete forms to qualify. School districts say with less interaction due to remote learning, they are struggling to notify parents of the need to complete the forms.

Before the pandemic, families were required to fill out applications to determine if their income qualified them for free or reduced-price lunch at school. This application served another key purpose: state and federal governments use the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch to measure school-level poverty and allocate funding.

That process was disrupted this year, as districts across New Hampshire took advantage of a federal initiative to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income, through curbside pick-up, delivery, or in school. Families who normally filled out forms no longer needed to in order to access meals.

But with fewer complete free and reduced applications, districts are now looking at millions of dollars less in poverty-based state aid. An estimate of state adequacy aid, released by the N.H. Department of Education earlier this week and based on free and reduced lunch counts this October, shows a significant decline in students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

Manchester, for example, saw its free or reduced lunch numbers decline by 30 percent. That translates to $4 million less in state aid. In Raymond, the number of students signed up for free and reduced lunch dropped 40 percent. In Franklin, that decline was 41 percent.

The decline among districts corresponds to a $19 million drop in poverty-based “differentiated” state aid for next fiscal year.

New Hampshire’s artificially low free or reduced numbers also have implications for federal funding. The federal government distributes money based on student enrollment and free or reduced lunch numbers, meaning an inaccurate count in New Hampshire this year could mean less money for special education, tutoring, and professional development.

The N.H. Department of Education says districts still have time to correct the tally and restore some of their state aid, if they manage to get qualifying parents to fill out forms before the end of the school year.

Franklin Superintendent Daniel Legallo says his district is starting a campaign to get more forms completed this winter. He suspects that pandemic-related job loss likely means more families need free or reduced lunch now than in 2019. But with many families opting to stay fully remote and other students only coming to school a few days a week in a hybrid model, the district is struggling to contact parents.

“I haven’t ruled out going door to door with some of our personnel to hand out the forms to make sure they get in peoples’ hands and they get filled out,” he says.

“It’s just a matter of making sure our families recognize that without those forms being processed, we are at risk of losing that revenue.”

Parents or guardians who want to fill out a free or reduced lunch application should contact the food service director at their child’s school district.

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Police: Man trapped woman, threatened her in her Alstead apartment
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A local man has been charged with multiple felonies, including kidnapping, burglary and criminal threatening with a deadly weapon, after police say he entered a former coworker’s Alstead home and tried to injure or kill her last week.

In an affidavit filed Nov. 12 in Cheshire County Superior Court, N.H. State Police allege Rodrick R. Rumrill Jr., 33, entered his former colleague’s apartment, where he trapped her after she arrived home.

Court records list addresses for him in both North Walpole and Charlestown.

Rumrill and the woman previously worked together at Len-Tex Wallcoverings in Walpole, she told police.

She told State Police she found Rumrill in her bedroom closet around 5:20 p.m. on Nov. 11. She said he then prevented her from leaving the room for approximately 20 minutes while holding what appeared to be a crowbar, according to the affidavit written by State Trooper Noah Sanctuary. Rumrill later told police he entered the apartment by climbing through a window, Sanctuary wrote.

The woman tried to alert her neighbors by stomping on the floor, which caused Rumrill to raise the bar as if he intended to hit her with it, Sanctuary wrote.

She told police that after he allowed her into the living room, Rumrill said he had spent the entire day in her apartment convincing himself not to kill her. He blamed her for how people had treated him at work and also told her that he wanted to die, she said.

The woman said she eventually convinced Rumrill to let her use the bathroom, where she messaged her downstairs neighbors, the affidavit states.

Rumrill then broke into the bathroom, she said, and after she refused to send a message telling her neighbors she did not need help, thrust a knife at her stomach, according to the affidavit. She was able to back up and avoid the attack, Sanctuary wrote.

The woman told police that after looking through her phone, Rumrill said, “you know what I’ll have to do,” which she understood to mean that he intended to kill her.

Her neighbors then came to the apartment’s front door, causing Rumrill to flee out the back door, according to Sanctuary.

The woman told police that she and Rumrill had worked together for approximately 3½ years before he was fired. She said he had given her unwanted gifts at work and had started blaming her for how people looked at him, which led a manager to step in, and that she suspected a strange Facebook message blaming her for various things was from him.

State Police contacted Rumrill later that night and met him at the Charlestown Police Department. He admitted to breaking into the woman’s apartment and said he brought a tire iron to convince her to tell him the truth, according to the affidavit. Rumrill said he threw the tire iron into the Cold River after leaving the apartment, Sanctuary wrote.

He was arrested at 9:30 that night and charged the following day, Nov. 12, with burglary, kidnapping, criminal threatening with a deadly weapon and reckless conduct, according to Cheshire County Superior Court records. All four charges are felonies.

Rumrill is being held at the Cheshire County jail in Keene, according to the facility’s online list of inmates.

Court records indicate he will be represented by the N.H. Public Defender. A trial date has not yet been determined.