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Area teens tell parents they want COVID vaccine
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As soon as the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was approved for young teenagers, Calvin Williams was asking his dad to book him an appointment.

The 14-year-old from Keene — like several other Monadnock Region adolescents whose parents spoke to The Sentinel — decided for himself whether he’d get vaccinated, rather than leaving the choice to his parents.

“It was always his choice and he’s wanted it for a long time,” his father, City Councilor Bobby Williams, said in an email. “[It’s] been stressful to be a kid living through a pandemic, and he has been very concerned that he, or someone in our family, might get the disease.”

The Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine for those 12 and older May 10. The other two approved vaccines, made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are available only to those 18 and older, though Moderna is seeking clearance from the FDA for people as young as 12.

New Hampshire allowed 12- to 15-year-olds to start making appointments three days later. As of May 25, more than 14,000 state residents who are 15 or younger — representing about 6 percent of that age group — have received their first dose, according to the most recent data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s too early for any of them to have received their second dose, which is supposed to happen 21 days after the first.

Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff  

Calvin Williams, 14, outside of his home in Keene on Friday. He received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on May 15.

Several vaccination clinics have occurred at schools in the Monadnock Region, according to Tricia Zahn, director of the Greater Monadnock Public Health Network, which runs Keene’s vaccination site.

The Jaffrey-Rindge school district, Hinsdale Middle/High School, ConVal Regional High School and South Meadow School in Peterborough, and Great Brook School in Antrim all had first-dose clinics in May, Zahn said, and have clinics for second doses scheduled for June, before the end of the school year. The Fall Mountain school district also held its first clinic last weekend, according to its website.

And at the Keene site on Krif Road — which is moving to Maple Avenue next week — Zahn said the younger crowd has led to an uptick in appointments.

“As soon as the new age groups were added — first for 16 and over, then for 12 and over — we [saw] an increase in appointments,” she said in an email.

Two of those younger patients were Addison and Ainsley Treat of West Chesterfield.

Addison, 17, is fully vaccinated, while Ainsley, 14, has her second dose scheduled for June 5, according to their mother, Amy Treat.

She said she and her husband have been talking to their daughters about the importance of getting vaccinated for a while, so they were prepared once the vaccine became available to them.

“Both of them were thrilled to be able to get the vaccine and hopefully start to get back to normal and to protect themselves and others,” she said in an email. “We felt the same way.”

Morgan Philbrick, 14, of Nelson also advocated for herself to get vaccinated.

Even though she has a fear of needles, her mom, Anna, said she was adamant about getting immunized. Morgan received her first dose on May 15. If she hadn’t wanted to get vaccinated, Anna Philbrick added, she wouldn’t have forced her daughter to do so.

“Of course I would have WANTED her to get it, for her safety,” she said in an email, “but I would have respected her desire to not have the vaccine if that was how she felt.”

Sarah Dunton of Keene, however, believes the vaccine needs to be tested further before getting herself or her kids — who are 14 and 16 — immunized.

“I’m not against the vaccine at all and I understand people who decide to receive the vaccine ... but ultimately I feel it was rushed and not studied enough to give to my children,” she said in an email.

The FDA based its approval for the emergency-use authorizations of all three COVID-19 vaccines — like any other vaccination on the market — on the safety and efficacy findings from several clinical trials. Pfizer is currently seeking full authorization from the FDA.

For others like Calvin Williams, getting vaccinated has “lifted a weight from his shoulders,” according to his dad. That, Bobby Williams said, outweighs any possible side effects or complications.

The most common side effects include swelling or pain at the injection site, fever, headache, tiredness, muscle pains, chills and nausea — all of which typically last 24 to 48 hours after the dose.

“We understand that any risks related to the vaccine are dwarfed by the risks related to catching covid-19,” he said by email. “We also recognize that we have a responsibility toward those around us to make sure that we are not contributing to the spread of a dangerous disease, and know that getting vaccinated is a way to do our part to hasten the end of the pandemic.”

Hitting the road? Memorial Day gas prices haven't been this high in 7 years

ATLANTA — Memorial Day weekend gasoline prices are at their highest level in seven years as American motorists hit the road for what experts are calling “revenge travel.”

The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline has increased by a penny since Monday, to $3.04, according to AAA. Memorial Day weekend prices have not been this high since 2014, when they averaged $3.65 a gallon. The average is 17 cents more than last month and $1.12 more expensive than last year.

“The industry is referring to it as ‘revenge travel,’ ” AAA spokesperson Jeanette McGee said. “People have more discretionary income, they’ve got a lot of PTO, or paid time off, saved up, so they’re going to take more trips and spend more money.”

AAA estimates 37 million Americans will travel by car and plane on Memorial Day weekend. That’s up 60 percent from last year, when many were cautious about the pandemic and stayed home. But it is still 13 percent below pre-pandemic travel levels reached during 2019’s Memorial Day weekend.

While the Colonial Pipeline is back in operation and deliveries are being made, some stations in the Southeast continue to experience supply strain. This is likely to extend into the holiday weekend, but motorists will be able to fill up.

“Holiday road trippers may come across some gas stations with low fuel supply in popular travel destinations, like beaches, mountains or national parks. However, markets are not expected to be fuel-less, like we saw in the wake of the pipeline shutdown,” McGee said.

Earlier this month, hackers locked up the Georgia-based company’s computer systems. The hackers didn’t take control of pipeline operations, but the company shut it down to prevent malware from affecting industrial control systems. Colonial Pipeline CEO Joseph Blount later said he approved paying more than $4 million to the Russian-based hackers who cyberattacked his company because “it was the right thing to do for the country.”

Colonial is now the target of a lawsuit alleging it employed lax cybersecurity measures that left it vulnerable to such an attack.

AAA is also citing new data from the Energy Information Administration showing gas demand increased from 9.22 million barrels per day to 9.58 million last week. Higher demand may contribute to fluctuating pump prices through the holiday.

Some quick stats from AAA:

The nation’s top 10 largest weekly changes: Hawaii (+4 cents), Indiana (-4 cents), California (+3 cents), Oregon (+3 cents), Colorado (+3 cents), Maryland (−3 cents), Georgia (−3 cents), Oklahoma (−3 cents), Illinois (−3 cents) and Wisconsin (−2 cents).

The nation’s top 10 least expensive markets: Louisiana ($2.71), Mississippi ($2.71), Missouri ($2.73), Texas ($2.74), Oklahoma ($2.75), Arkansas ($2.76), Kansas ($2.83), Minnesota ($2.83), Alabama ($2.83) and North Dakota ($2.84).

Since last Thursday, these 10 states have seen the largest changes in their averages: Michigan (+9 cents), Ohio (+5 cents), Hawaii (+4 cents), Oklahoma (-4 cents), Indiana (+3 cents), Alaska (+3 cents), Texas (-3 cents), Georgia (-3 cents), North Carolina (-3 cents) and Maryland (-3 cents).

AAA recommends filling up the gas tank before arriving at vacation destinations because gasoline prices can be higher around popular tourist spots.

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Using relief funds to build units could ease housing crunch, advocates say
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New Hampshire housing advocates say they largely support Gov. Chris Sununu’s recent proposal to divert federal dollars meant for rent relief and other housing aid toward creating new affordable units.

That plan, which requires U.S. Treasury Department approval, would help ease a serious housing crunch in the Granite State, reduce the cost of rent and boost economic growth, they say.

In a May 4 letter, Sununu asked Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to let New Hampshire use funds from the state’s $200 million Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program to help build affordable housing. That program, which opened in March, offers cash aid for past-due and future rent, utilities and other housing-related costs — including Internet and relocation expenses — caused directly or indirectly by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sununu argued in his letter, however, that federal officials have been “overly restrictive” in defining those other housing-related costs.

“This narrow interpretation ... is hindering the State’s ability to use the funds to ensure our more vulnerable populations have access to safe and affordable housing,” he wrote.

New Hampshire had a rental vacancy rate of 1.8 percent last year, according to the independent state agency N.H. Housing — well below the 4 to 5 percent that experts consider healthy and which they say has caused rental costs to surge. In Cheshire County, the vacancy rate was 1.9 percent.

Noting the low statewide rate, Sununu told Yellen that to properly address issues of housing affordability, New Hampshire must boost its stock of affordable units, in addition to helping renters cover their housing expenses. With more flexibility, he said the state could invest ERA funds in public-private partnerships for new housing, among other ways to encourage those projects.

“While those able to access rental units will benefit from the ERA, absent the ability to increase available rental units, the program will fall short,” he wrote.

Treasury officials had not yet responded to the governor’s proposal as of Thursday, according to Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt.

Josh Meehan, executive director of Keene Housing, applauded the proposal, saying the local housing shortage is more severe than he recalls at any other time over the past decade. He said Keene Housing clients, who get rental assistance from the organization, have struggled to find homes in the area, often spending three to four months looking for an available unit.

The limited housing stock has also raised rental costs, Meehan said, making many properties unaffordable to them. (N.H. Housing estimated last year that the state would need to add 20,000 units to create a balanced market.)

“From our perspective, the number one problem we’re seeing is a lack of affordable apartments in the region,” he said.

Keene Housing has encouraged clients to apply for ERA relief, if needed, but Meehan said he doesn’t think many have utilized that aid because their rent is already subsidized.

The program had administered more than $12 million as of May 21, mostly for rent assistance, according to an online dashboard run by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR). Cheshire County residents had received $524,000, it reported.

That spending has easily outpaced a similar federally backed program that issued $13.3 million to New Hampshire renters over six months last year, in an effort to reduce housing instability during the pandemic.

But with a federal windfall tied to the ERA program, Housing Action N.H. Director Elissa Margolin said she supports funneling some of that money into affordable units — especially because state support for those projects has typically been insufficient, she added.

Margolin, whose organization is a policy-advocacy group that includes developers, housing providers and tenant advocates, said expanding the housing stock would help keep rental costs down and also attract workers and students to New Hampshire.

“I think we all have a concern about the extreme lack of stock,” she said. “… It’s an issue now not just for low-wage earners, but for everyone. It’s affecting someone who’s going to choose where to do their residency after medical school, as well as a single mom who’s working a low-wage job.”

The federal housing aid has helped renters pay their bills and also kept landlords financially secure, according to Margolin, even as many tenants can’t be evicted for nonpayment of rent due to a federal eviction moratorium. She said, however, that it’s unlikely the state will drain its ERA funds, noting that a stimulus bill Congress passed earlier this year designated another $152 million for the state’s housing relief program.

“I honestly don’t see New Hampshire spending down $352 million in rental assistance,” she said.

Many tenants are still waiting on that housing aid, as nearly three in five requests remained under review as of May 21, according to the GOFERR dashboard. (State officials have approved nearly every application that has been considered so far.)

GOFERR spokesman Alex Fries said it usually takes about four weeks to process those requests, since the five community action agencies administering the ERA program — including Southwestern Community Services, which covers Cheshire and Sullivan counties — must gather various documentation and review applications for several types of aid.

Elliott Berry, who leads the Housing Justice Project at N.H. Legal Assistance, said it’s unlikely the state will distribute all of the federal rent relief. Still, he said he would prefer that the state tap other resources to encourage residential development — like the $1.25 billion it was awarded as part of the most recent federal stimulus bill — before cutting into ERA funds.

“That’s a very meaningful amount of money and has provided important assistance to tenants all over the state,” he said.

Berry said he supports Sununu’s effort in principle, though, echoing the other advocates that New Hampshire has “an extreme shortage” of homes available to renters of low and moderate incomes.

“Part of any solution to that problem is the creation of new units,” he said. “Anything we can do to increase the supply of affordable housing is a really important thing to do.”

But with the federal eviction moratorium scheduled to expire at the end of June, Berry said demand for rent relief could jump dramatically. He urged state officials to be patient before acting on the governor’s proposal, if it’s approved.

“It could be a very constructive measure, but I really think we ought to monitor for another five or six months to see how much demand there is going to be for the emergency relief program before we start diverting it to other purposes.”