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Local nursing homes, first responders start getting COVID-19 vaccine

As part of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, area first responders, and nursing home residents and staff are starting to get their shots.

New Hampshire received the first round of vaccines in mid-December, and the doses were given immediately to health-care workers most at risk of contracting the viral disease.

The latest batches are going to others at high risk, including additional health-care workers as well as first responders and residents and staff at long-term care facilities, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

It will take about six to 12 months for the general public to get the vaccine, the state health department said.

Two vaccines — which are administered in two doses, about a month apart — were approved for emergency-use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration late last month.

Both vaccines — one by Pfizer-BioNTech, the other by Moderna — show a 95 percent efficacy rate, the FDA says.

Vaccinations have already begun in some local nursing homes, while others are slated to start this week.

Nationwide, these facilities — many of which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic — are partnering with either CVS or Walgreens to administer the shots on-site to staff and residents. This is in part to reduce the burden on facility staff while also ensuring the vaccine is properly administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland is scheduled to have its first clinic with CVS on Monday.

Administrator Kathryn Kindopp said the facility will get 330 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

“This amount is sufficient to vaccinate all current residents and staff that have indicated they will agree to receive the vaccine at this time,” she said in an email, “so we are fortunate in that we won’t need to triage or limit access.”

Genesis Healthcare — which has facilities in Keene, Winchester and Peterborough — has already begun vaccinating residents and staff through CVS, according to spokeswoman Lori Mayer.

Pheasant Wood Center in Peterborough, Keene Center and Applewood Rehabilitation Center in Winchester all had their first round of immunizations in the past two weeks, she said.

Another clinic, Mayer added, is scheduled for Wednesday at Langdon Place of Keene.

“In advance of each scheduled clinic, we need to let CVS know how many vaccines they need to bring, based on the number of staff members and residents who have agreed to receive the vaccine,” she said in an email. “CVS has been bringing the appropriate number.”

Hillside Village, a retirement community that includes long-term care in Keene, had not received its clinic dates as of Monday, according to Executive Director Jolynn Whitten.

RiverMead, a senior-living community in Peterborough, said vaccines were given last month to all staff and to residents of its assisted-living and memory-care units.

It’s a different protocol for first responders, who will get their shots at one of 13 vaccination sites set up across the state. They include locations in Keene — on the Keene State College campus — and Claremont.

Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker said he sent a list to the state, ranking his employees from most to least urgent based on how many interactions they have with the public.

With the list submitted, employees can fill out an application saying they want a COVID-19 vaccine and schedule an appointment.

Walker said he got vaccinated in Keene on Thursday morning, and several members of his department did so last week as well.

He wasn’t sure how many of his 65 employees will get the vaccine, and those who choose not to are required to continue following the typical safety protocols, such as donning a face mask, just like everyone else.

“I think a lot of people are adamant that they will get vaccinated, and a lot of what plays into this for individuals isn’t just the role they have as a provider here,” he said. “Some of them are in at-risk populations, and we have other folks who are caregivers ... or who have children who are at high-risk for complications.”

Six of the eight full-time employees at the Winchester Police Department have opted for the vaccine, according to Winchester Police Chief Mike Tollett.

He was vaccinated Thursday in Keene and said it’s been a “fairly smooth process” for his staff to schedule their appointments.

Keene Fire Chief Mark Howard said Keene firefighters started the vaccination process on Wednesday. He added that he wasn’t sure how many of his 45 staff members would sign up for the shot.

“I plan on being vaccinated once my number is called,” he said in an email, “and encourage the community to become familiar with the two current vaccines approved by the FDA and what risk, side effects etc. are involved so they can make informed decisions on the process.”

Employees of the Keene Police Department have also started getting vaccinated, Keene Police Chief Steve Russo said.

Russo said he wasn’t sure how many of his 71 staff members will get immunized.

Many of those interviewed said the vaccination process was working well.

Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates added that though it may seem like the rollout will take a while, he has faith in the state health department’s plan.

“It’s so massive an undertaking, and when you want something so bad it feels you are moving in slow motion,” he said. “But I do believe that we are going as fast as we can.”

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Giving 2020 its due, locals burn calendars on New Year's Day
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SWANZEY — A normal New Year’s celebration might consist of fireworks, too much champagne and a kiss. But this year, after grappling with the hardships of 2020, the First Congregational Church of Swanzey had different plans.

“One of the woman [of our church] just happened to mention passing by one day, ‘Well we used to burn our calendars on a bad year,’ and we thought, ‘Oh, what a great idea!’” said member Sandy Allen of Swanzey.

The church doesn’t typically host an event for the new year, Allen said, but with most services held virtually this year and limited time spent with the congregation, it made sense to host a safe, outdoor gathering.

The calendar burning, which anyone could attend, was held Friday at 3:30 p.m. in the church’s parking lot on Old Homestead Highway. Before attendees lit up their calendars, several people said prayers and sang in honor of those who’ve lost their lives to COVID-19, and those still working on the frontlines.

The 15 or so area residents then began to torch their calendars in a bonfire, with a celebratory bell rung after each one.

Allen suggested that, if they’d had a good month in 2020, participants rip that page out and not burn it. She encouraged people to tell the group the joy that month brought.

“I’m tearing September because our first grandson was born in September!” Cynthia Stinson, a Swanzey resident and church member, told the crowd.

“I took out November because one of our daughters came up, and we were able to celebrate Thanksgiving outside,” said Allen’s husband, Rick.

photos by Olivia Belanger / Sentinel Staff  

Pat Haselton of Swanzey lights her 2020 calendar on fire Friday afternoon, as part of the Swanzey Congregational Church’s New Year’s Day celebration. The event was accompanied by prayer and song for those who’ve lost their lives to the pandemic and those working on the front lines.

One participant, Pat Haselton of Swanzey, decided to throw in her whole calendar.

“I don’t care what happened!” she said, laughing.

Keene resident Rene Lamothe, 81, said he’s not a church member but decided to attend because the event sounded “very appropriate.”

“2020 was a very disruptive year in a lot of ways, and with the hope of putting it all behind us, it sounded like a good ceremonial way to say goodbye once and for all,” he said.

After burning his calendar, Lamothe said he felt catharsis, and is looking forward to a better year ahead.

It was a similar feeling for retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David Stinson, Cynthia’s husband.

Specifically, with the COVID-19 vaccinations beginning across the nation, he wants 2021 to bring an end to the pandemic.

“I’m hoping that this will be behind us by the summer,” he said.

And regardless of what 2021 brings, Sandy Allen said the church may do this again, calendar burning and all.

“Maybe now,” she said, “this is the beginning of a tradition.”

NH's minimum wage stands out as lowest in New England

PORTSMOUTH — For Javi Kalback, owner of Portsmouth Escape Room, paying her small team of employees above the New Hampshire minimum wage is a reflection of her desire for them to love their job.

“We have an awesome team. I want people to be happy while at work, to enjoy and take pride in their work,” said Kalback, who pays her workers $11 per hour upon their hiring and increases wages after they gain experience.

Kalback is one of many business owners in New Hampshire who pay above the state’s $7.25 minimum wage. The state defaults to the federal minimum as it doesn’t have its own minimum wage. New Hampshire’s last increase was in 2009 in accordance with the federal minimum wage bump at that time from $6.55 per hour to $7.25. New Hampshire has the lowest minimum pay rate among New England states, each of which passed legislation to increase minimum wages in recent years.

Vermont’s minimum was $10.96 per hour and increased on Jan. 1 to $11.75. Maine’s $12 minimum moved up to $12.15 with the new year. Massachusetts was at $12.75 and is rising to $13.50 in 2021. Connecticut’s is $12 and will increase to $13 in August 2021. Rhode Island’s was $11.75 and moved to $12 on Jan. 1.

A July 2019 Congressional Budget Office report examined likely outcomes resulting from the federal minimum wage increasing to $10, $12 and $15 by 2025. Findings under the $10 wage track indicated 1.5 million workers would see wage increases; 5 million workers would see wage increases with a $12 minimum wage in 2025; and 17 million workers would experience wage increases under the $15 minimum wage in 2025.

The CBO’s median estimate on joblessness under a $10 minimum wage would lead to “virtually no effect on employment in an average week in 2025.” Under a $12 minimum wage, the CBO’s estimated a median of 300,000 workers would be jobless in an average week in 2025, while a median of 1.3 million workers would be unemployed under a $15 minimum wage in 2025.

Michael Polizzotti, policy analyst at New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, argues “this analysis acknowledges that those experiencing job loss as a result of minimum wage increases would be likely to move to other employment opportunities and reap the benefits of higher wages.”

He added workers of racial and diverse backgrounds and other marginalized groups “who are over-represented among low-wage workers would be the most positively impacted by increases to minimum wages.”

In August 2019, the NHFPI reported that New Hampshire’s labor force contained approximately 764,000 workers as of December 2018. Of that body, resulting from “the competitive nature of the labor market,” roughly 8,000 workers have pay rates at the minimum wage — about 0.01 percent of New Hampshire’s workforce.

“The minimum wage in New Hampshire is mostly associated with industries such as Healthcare and Social Services, Accommodation and Food Services, and Retail Trade,” NHFPI found.

Karen Weston, Dover’s former mayor and the former co-owner of Janetos Market, a family business sold this year, would typically start out new hires at just under $10 per hour, adding that she doesn’t know anyone who pays the minimum wage.

“I really don’t. As a (former) business owner, it’s what we’ve been living with. You pay more than the minimum wage because you have to take and do what the market bears,” she said.

Weston believes New Hampshire lawmakers should continue considering a boost to the minimum wage. “I just think that no matter who you are, if you raise the minimum wage to $10, that would be a reasonable thing,” she said, adding that, should the state ever aim for a $15 hourly rate, those increases should take place by increasing incrementally $1 per year over a five-year period.July 2019 findings from the Economic Policy Institute showed more than 33 million American workers would benefit from a federal raise to a $15 minimum wage, including 116,000 workers in New Hampshire.

In August 2019, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed Senate Bill 10, which would have raised the state minimum wage to $10 earlier this year and to $12 by 2022.

On July 24, state Democratic lawmakers’ attempts to revive a similar initiative also failed as Sununu vetoed House Bill 731 while citing “negative unintended consequences,” such as little hiring leeway for employers and that the bill would adversely affect the state’s job market.

“It is important to remember that a law can force an employer to pay a minimum wage but it cannot force an employer to hire or retain a worker at that wage, or to continue offering the same number of hours to that worker,” Sununu wrote in his veto message.

The veto also stated that pursuing such legislation during the coronavirus pandemic poses a threat for New Hampshire’s entry-level workers and those returning from incarceration.

“In our current economic environment, the greatest burden would fall squarely on entry-level workers, who need job skills to advance in their careers,” Sununu’s message said. “Raising the minimum wage would create a barrier for these new workers, as well as those reentering the job market from the criminal justice system at a time when unemployment remains high.”

The bill would have raised New Hampshire’s minimum wage to $10 upon the new year, a figure that would increase to $12 on Jan. 1, 2023.

Polizotti said New Hampshire’s lowest paid workers would benefit from wage increases, stating it would “improve their potential for upward economic mobility.”

“Helping ensure the wage floor is higher will get more Granite Staters closer to meeting the costs of living, help them make ends meet and save for the future,” Polizotti said.

In Newmarket, Brown’s Bagels co-owner Jessica Healey Brown believes it can be hard to find good labor at the state minimum wage rate, which is why her business pays employees $10 upon their hire and typically increases the figure after a month-long performance review.

“Our business is busy and not always the (most fun) experience. We feel that it is a small price to pay to have the employee feel valued,” she said.

Kalback said most of her employees stay with the Escape Room for years, some even continuing part-time after obtaining steadier career work.

She noted her employees, most of whom are University of New Hampshire students, normally enjoy their work and are paid closer to $13 per hour after spending time with the business.

“I just want to make sure I pay them as much as I can and provide a good and fair job environment,” she said, adding she doesn’t know of many employers who don’t pay higher than the minimum wage.

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COVID relief package
What the COVID relief package round two means for New Hampshire

In signing the end-of-year spending package last month, President Donald Trump put in motion the latest stimulus effort by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The signature, which came after a week after the U.S. House and Senate sent him the bill and after days of publicly criticizing it for not containing enough aid, allows a set of special pandemic unemployment insurance benefits to resume next month. And it clears the way for $600 one-off stimulus payments for all Americans.

But the bill he signed includes a wide range of pieces that affect Granite Staters. Over $2 billion in aid is heading to New Hampshire in total in the next few months.

Here’s an overview of some of what’s inside for New Hampshire:

Stimulus checks

Perhaps most well-known of the provisions in the new spending package is the one-off $600 stimulus packages. Like the $1200-per-person aid payments in the spring, the $600 are expected to be distributed the same way, using direct deposits into citizens’ bank accounts.

In total, about $614 million in direct federal stimulus payments will flow to New Hampshire residents and families, according to figures from the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan group. That’s the equivalent of just under 10 percent of the state’s annual budget.

Unemployment benefits

In addition to the extension of two key programs that helped more categories people access unemployment insurance during the pandemic — such as the self-employed — the new aid bill brings back a federal enhancement of state unemployment benefits. Starting Jan. 2, recipients of unemployment benefits will begin seeing $300 a week added on to the benefits they already qualify for from state unemployment.

That could mean that weekly checks could be as low as $332 and as high as $727, depending on the recipient’s previous salary.

New Hampshire is expected to get a bout $685 million in additional federal aid to cover its $300-a-week payments, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Rent moratorium

Back in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a moratorium on all evictions due to non-payment of rent. The move was similar to a state moratorium implemented by Gov. Chris Sununu in March, which was then allowed to lapse at the end of June.

That moratorium has been extended by the new spending package, a development welcomed by housing advocates. But as Fosters Daily Democrat has reported, that moratorium has not stopped all evictions. Some landlords have been pressing ahead using other justifications to remove tenants, such as health and safety issues and breaches of parking lot rules.

Vaccine distribution

Among the most sought-after assistance by state governments is money to distribute the vaccine.

New Hampshire will get $36 million to help with distribution, and an additional $183 million to assist in ongoing contract tracing and COVID-19 mitigation.

It remains to be seen how the state implements this aid. In recent weeks, the state had pulled back on its contact tracing efforts, pointing to the surge of the second wave of the virus as being too strong to keep up with using its resources and staffing.

Rental relief

The new bill contains $200 million of housing relief for New Hampshire, out of $25 billion of assistance to the country as a whole.

That’s a massive increase from the $35 million that New Hampshire set aside this year for tenant and homeowner assistance, out of the $1.25 billion allotment of CARES Act funding.

The money is set to be distributed by Treasury Department, but will likely flow through the community action agencies, which have been distributing the CARES act funding to tenants and landlords.

End to surprise billing

Tucked into the more-than-5000-page bill is a provision that has brought together New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy and even President Trump: an end to surprise medical billing.

The practice involved hospitals sending patients astronomical bills for care they received from out-of-network specialists — even when the hospital itself fell within the insurance network. The new bill seeks to head off those charges by forcing the insurance companies and the hospitals to broker a payment compromise so the consumer does not bear the unpaid balance.

A version of this law passed the New Hampshire Legislature in 2018 for state-regulated insurance plans; this new provision addresses federally-regulated plans, which include most employer plans in the United States.

Child-care assistance

From the start of the pandemic, access to child care has been paramount, particularly as some facilities closed down temporarily and as frontline workers faced increased workplace strain.

Through the new bill, New Hampshire will get about $20 million in assistance this time to help assist child-care centers in keeping their doors open, and to provide direct child-care assistance to families.

The bill also contains around $250 million in assistance for school districts and colleges and universities in New Hampshire.

Funeral benefits

There’s even money to help with funerals.

New Hampshire will receive $5 million assist families funeral costs through a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The state has seen more than 700 deaths since the pandemic began.