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Sununu requests disaster declaration for late July storm
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In a letter to President Joe Biden, Gov. Chris Sununu has issued a request for a disaster declaration to help communities recover from the storm that hit the Monadnock Region over four days in late July and early August. The request comes one week after another request, which asked for a declaration for the July 17-19 storm.

According to the letter, preliminary damage assessments — facilitated by the N.H. Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — have verified $3,260,519 worth of damage across Cheshire and Sullivan Counties.

That figure, however, is not the complete sum of what it will cost for the impacted municipalities to fully recover from the storm, as it does not include soft costs — such as engineering expenses — or mitigation expenses. Additionally, due to the storm’s magnitude, FEMA representatives were unable to evaluate every site where towns indicated there was damage and instead only viewed sites where damage was most severe, Sununu wrote.

New Hampshire typically sees between 4 and 5 inches of rain in July, according to the letter. By July 29, southwestern New Hampshire had already experienced about 10 inches.

The storm — which came at the end of an already unusually wet July — involved two rounds of rain, with the first occurring July 29-30. According to information from the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, which was included with the letter, there were reports of 2 to 3 inches of rain across the state, with some areas seeing as much as 5 inches in six hours — or even less time.

The first round of rain was the “impetus” for the flash flooding that occurred Aug. 1-2, the letter says. In that second round, Sullivan County saw the heaviest rains, with some areas reporting 2.5 to 3 inches.

Of the more than $3 million in verified damage, more than 99 percent is associated with roads and bridges. The remaining costs account for emergency protective measures, according to the letter, dated Sept. 20.

In Cheshire County, Alstead, Keene, Marlow and Walpole conducted damage assessments with FEMA, according to Vanessa Palange, spokeswoman for the N.H. Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. In Sullivan County, Acworth, Charlestown, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Sunapee, Unity and Washington conducted assessments.

The communities that suffered the most damage include Acworth, Alstead, Walpole and Washington, the letter says.

“It is important to note that fewer than 10 towns within these two (2) counties alone met the entire state indicator threshold to request a Major Disaster declaration for New Hampshire, a fact that highlights the profound impact that this event has had on the communities,” Sununu wrote.

The state threshold for a major disaster declaration request is $2,040,529.

The letter reported that Acworth — which was the hardest hit of all communities known to be impacted by the storm — incurred $1,394,639 in verified damage.

Heavy rains washed out 75 percent of road infrastructure and culverts across town. Twenty-nine roads were damaged, and 12 of those were fully closed while several others were partially closed. According to the letter, an engineer said many sections of Crane Brook Road were not salvageable.

Twelve roads in Acworth were not evaluated by FEMA during the town’s damage assessment, but “current local estimates for emergency repairs alone are approximately $7.8 [million],” the letter says.

Sununu also described the impact the storm and ensuing damage have had on the town’s farms, including Cadillac Dairy Farms and Bascom Maple Farm. The closure of Crane Brook Road and other roads has barred the maple farm from reaching more than half of its taps and made transporting crops difficult for Cadillac Dairy Farms, according to the letter.

Alstead incurred $383,263 in storm-related damage. State roads and infrastructure also sustained damage, and the N.H. Department of Transportation had $152,127 in FEMA-verified costs.

In the letter, Gov. Sununu requested a designation of the Public Assistance Program for Cheshire and Sullivan Counties and a statewide designation of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

If President Biden approves the request for a disaster declaration, it would allow eligible communities to apply for funds from those two programs.

Under the Public Assistance Program, municipalities would share the cost of work, with the federal government typically covering no less than 75 percent of the costs, according to Palange.

The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program helps communities fund long-term mitigation projects so they can rebuild in a way that reduces the risk of injury or property loss in future disasters, she said.

NH Republicans seek new laws on mask, shot mandates

LEBANON — New Hampshire Republicans are signaling their intent to dismantle local coronavirus restrictions by banning mask and vaccine mandates they argue limit personal freedom.

House Republicans have so far submitted more than two dozen legislative service requests — or requests for a bill to be drafted — challenging mandates enacted by municipalities, schools and private businesses.

Some of the requests seek to ban schools from making students and staff wear masks indoors, while others would prohibit businesses from enforcing vaccine requirements, including those mandated by the federal government.

Lawmakers also are proposing limits to the authority of local health officers and municipal ordinances. And one request would allow ivermectin — the anti-parasitic drug hawked by conspiracy theorists as a cure for COVID-19 — be sold over the counter.

Anne Sosin, who directs the Center for Global Health Equity at Dartmouth College, said the slate of proposed legislation has far-reaching implications.

In the short term, she said, it could tie the hands of health care professionals and officials attempting to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“In the longer term, I worry that this will undermine the already weak public health capacity that we have in the state of New Hampshire,” Sosin said in a phone interview. “We need to be able to respond to the next pandemic.”

She added that, given rising coronavirus cases, this isn’t the time for policymakers to abandon the few tools they have to protect public health.

Last week, the state reported a seven-day average of 456 coronavirus cases, a threshold last seen in February. Meanwhile, WMUR reported Monday that New Hampshire’s vaccination rate crept up by only 1.7 percent since July.

“We’re in the midst of a surge,” Sosin said. “Now is the wrong time to be having this debate in New Hampshire.”

Current state law allows private employers to require their employees to be vaccinated. And the Upper Valley’s two largest employers — Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health and Dartmouth College — have announced COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Meanwhile, many of the region’s largest school districts are requiring their teachers and students to wear masks.

But state Rep. Jeffrey Greeson, R-Wentworth, said mandates, particularly those that would force people to obtain a vaccine to keep their jobs, cross a line and infringe on personal liberty.

“It’s all about freedom. We can be ‘safe,’ we can live free … it’s not a trade-off,” said Greeson, whose floterial district includes the Upper Valley towns of Canaan and Orange.

The first-term lawmaker intends to sponsor bills “prohibiting coercion or punishment” for refusing a vaccine and impaneling a grand jury to investigate the state’s pandemic restrictions.

Greeson, who declined to say whether he got a COVID-19 vaccine, said that the grand jury would look into the legality of Gov. Chris Sununu’s mask mandate, stay-at-home order and other emergency rules.

“We were literally in oneman rule, that man being Gov. (Chris) Sununu,” he said.

While Republicans are behind the push to do away with local coronavirus regulations, it’s unclear whether party leadership will get behind the effort.

A split in how far some lawmakers are willing to go appeared last week when House leaders held a press conference outside the Statehouse to protest the Biden administration’s recent order mandating COVID-19 vaccines for federal employees, health care agencies and employers with 100 or more workers.

The crowd turned against the representatives, with some blaming Sununu for not doing enough.

The governor’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt declined to comment on the proposed bills on Monday, saying final language isn’t yet public and that many legislative service requests don’t become bills.

“If it looks like a bill is likely to pass both houses and reach the governor’s desk, the Governor will review the final language of any bill before deciding whether to sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature,” he said in an email.

But state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said that coronavirus restrictions will be a “huge” topic in the upcoming year. While he declined to predict how the debate will go in the House, Giuda said, “I think the Senate will be much more nuanced.”

Giuda, whose Senate district includes the towns of Haverhill, Piermont, Orford, Orange and Dorchester, said he’s not in favor of a statewide policy on masks in schools, adding that decision should be left to local officials who can be voted out.

However, he’s inclined to vote against allowing vaccine mandates and worries that the state vaccine registry could be used against people who refuse a shot.

“This is a collision between privacy, public health policy and physically intrusive measures,” he said. “Each of those in and of itself demands considerable discussion and the balance between them, if we do anything, is something we have to come up with.”

To state Sen. Sue Prentiss, D-Lebanon, the choice of whether to interfere with private businesses and local government is clear cut — “it’s a bad idea.”

“Every time that we turn our backs on science and public health officials and the health care community, which are saying that vaccination is the way out, we’re just prolonging the impact of COVID,” she said.

Prentiss went on to say that Republicans are just “spinning their wheels” instead of tackling policy that will lead New Hampshire out of the pandemic. And, while Democrats are in the minority in Concord, she intends to stand up for local governments instituting their own rules.

Q&A: Clearing up the mask confusion

The best protection against serious illness, hospitalization, and asymptomatic transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be getting fully vaccinated. But with the state’s vaccination rate seemingly stuck at 54 percent, masks look to be with us for at least the next several months.

We asked Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease expert at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, to help decipher the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ever-changing masking guidance, when we can put masks away for good, and whether you really need a KN95 mask. He knows we’d rather not be having this conversation 18 months into COVID-19, but he also thinks we have to.

“For sure, you’ve got to think about yourself,” Khole said. “But you’ve also got to … think about the others around you, which may be your friends, your family, and other community members. We’re truly all in this together. And it’s individual actions that’s going to help us get out.”

Initially, we were told not to mask. Then masks were recommended only for health care workers. That guidance has changed several times. Now, even the vaccinated are supposed to mask. Why all the changes?

The short answer? Learning curve.

Prior to COVID-19, asymptomatic transmission — a significant challenge in managing this pandemic — did not exist, Khole said. So, infectious disease experts initially recommended what had always been the best defense against viruses: Those with COVID-19 symptoms were told to stay home or mask.

“We were all going by data, which said there is no data to support (masking) for everyone,” Khole said. “And as we got to know more, we said, OK we need to think about this in a different way.”

That new understanding collided with a dangerously limited supply of all personal protective equipment, masks included. Health care workers were prioritized because the surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths made clear we needed them to keep safe and working.

That increased understanding of science prompted new masking guidance. States adopted mask mandates and shut down non-essential businesses to mitigate spread.

Those restrictions were gradually lifted in the spring of 2021 with the arrival of the vaccine. As vaccination rates climbed, mask mandates disappeared, and by summer, in most settings, only the unvaccinated were advised to mask.

“What we saw was that once people are vaccinated … the risk of them getting infected is lesser, and their ability to shed virus for prolonged durations also decreases,” Khole said. “That’s where CDC changed its guidance.”

That guidance changed again with the arrival of the highly contagious Delta variant, and more specifically, the Provincetown, Mass., outbreak in July, where more than 300 people who tested positive were fully vaccinated.

Experts noted at the time that the vaccine prevented almost all of them from being hospitalized, but the high number of “breakthrough” cases led the CDC to recommend masks for all people in all settings because it was the safest approach.

“That’s why it’s gone back and forth and led to this confusion,” Khole said. “But it’s always been driven by science.”

Even guidance on masks became confusing, with health care experts initially saying cloth masks were ineffective. What kind of mask should we be wearing?

“I think the blanket rule to follow is, use something which ensures two things: fit and filterability,” Khole said. And one mask, not two, is sufficient.

Homemade cloth masks were discouraged, Khole said, because they had not been tested or standardized, both disqualifiers in the health care world. That changed as evidence demonstrated a cloth mask’s ability to significantly reduce the transmission of respiratory droplets.

To be useful, cloth masks must have at least two layers to be effective, which is why single-layer neck gaiters are not recommended. Masks should have an internal piece that can be pinched around your nose and fit snugly, without gaps around your chin and cheeks.

There is no need to get an N95 or KN95 mask, which differ mainly in that the first is the American standard and the latter is the Chinese standard, Khole said. And it may actually be counterproductive to do so because the CDC estimates that 60 percent of N95 masks on the market today are counterfeit. (If you do opt for an N95 mask, the CDC keeps a list of approved manufacturers on its website.)

“In times of distress, rumors fly around … and there’s this heightened level of anxiety, everyone thinks N95 is better,” Khole said. “Again, I think what we’ve learned is, keep it simple. Fit, filterability, continue distancing and hygiene, and stay away from anyone if you’re sick or if they’re sick. I think that goes a long way.”

Does my mask protect others only or does it protect me too? This messaging has also changed over time.

“It does both,” Khole said. “The primary reason was to protect others from you potentially shedding and not knowing about it (because you are asymptomatic).” But it’s also protecting you from someone else who may be around you and shedding virus.

Are there some health conditions where you would recommend not wearing a mask?

No, Khole said, but there may be other reasons and circumstances that dictate different mask use. The CDC recommends clear masks for people who need to see words spoken, such as people with autism or other disabilities, those who are deaf, and students learning to read or speak a new language.

Parents in this state have filed lawsuits against mask mandates, alleging they are unsafe, even harmful, for children. Is there any truth to this?

“There’s no data or science that is saying that,” Khole said. “I think one of the issues we are battling in this pandemic is misinformation. And I think, whether it be social media or just any other resource that they’re getting this news from, tends to dominate what they hear.”

When can we stop wearing masks, and how do we get there?

“It’s not like one fine day we wake up and say, COVID-19’s done,” Khole said. “It’s going to linger on for years, but we need to get to a point where people can function normally in their lives.” That path there starts with vaccination, he said.

Natural immunity from getting COVID-19 provides some protection, but it comes with risks of serious illness, even death, and it doesn’t last as long as immunity provided by vaccination, Khole said.

Can you foresee continued use of masks, even after we slow COVID-19 transmission rates?

Possibly, Khole said, but by choice, not mandate.

During last year’s flu season, when everyone was masking, the hospital did not have a single patient test positive for influenza, even with widespread testing. Colleagues who have severe allergies told Khole they did not suffer their usual symptoms because they were masking.

“If we’re able to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with other respiratory viruses that haunt us usually September to March and we know what works, then why not?” Khole said. “However, it’s going to be a big step to move in that direction, to convince people, but it’s not unheard of.”

Glasses and masks are not a good combination. Any secrets for eliminating fogged lenses?

Not much good news here.

Khole has tried the anti-fog spray and didn’t find it helpful. Closing any gaps between your mask and your face is the best bet, he said.

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The Clarence DeMar Marathon is back, with a few changes
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Come Sunday, the familiar scene of DeMar Marathon race day will return to Keene.

Well, kind of.

Because of the ongoing COVID pandemic, the DeMar Marathon will look a bit different from years past.

The biggest change will be a limit on the number of people allowed on Keene State’s Appian Way, at the finish line of the race.

Only runners, volunteers and approved vendors will be allowed on campus, said race director Alan Stroshine, meaning no community members will be allowed to cheer on runners as they cross the finish line.

But there are plenty of other places along the 26.2-mile course for friends and families of runners to safely show their support.

“Because runners won’t have the usual support at the finish line, we’re asking the community to come out around the whole course,” Stroshine said. “There are numerous places to safely watch the race.”

Some of the suggested cheering spots include Surry Mountain Lake, Alumni Field, Keene Middle School, Fuller Elementary School and Franklin Elementary School. A full list can be found on the DeMar Marathon website.

The finish will also be livestreamed on the Clarence DeMar Marathon Facebook page.

Stroshine said in normal years, 4,000 to 5,000 people gather by the finish line at Keene State. He hopes everyone still comes out to support the runners — just spread out along the course.

Spectators are also encouraged not to gather on Main Street near the college to catch the end of the race, Stroshine said.

If runners are being picked up by friends or family after the race, they’ll have a chance to catch their breath on campus, then go meet up with their ride at a designated parking lot off-campus.

Two other community aspects of the event have been changed.

The Kids Marathon is moved to Saturday this year, at the Keene Family YMCA, rather than being run on Sunday on the marathon course.

The Super Seniors Marathon will still take place Sunday, but runners will finish at the Cheshire Historical Society.

Registration numbers are down this year, Stroshine said, which is not a surprise given the current state of the COVID pandemic.

Stroshine estimated the half marathon will have 375 to 400 runners, while the full marathon will have 300 to 325 runners. Normally, both races have about 400 runners.

The Kids Marathon, which normally brings in about 1,200 kids, is down to about 650 this year.

Despite the changes, Stroshine is just happy to have the race back after missing out last fall amid the pandemic.

Canceling last year’s race was a “gut punch,” Stroshine said, but he feels it was the right decision.

“It wasn’t realistic or responsible to put on a community event last fall,” Stroshine said.

Now, though the coronavirus danger has persisted, the DeMar is back, thanks to support from the community.

“We have to change things, but I’m extremely grateful to our community partners for making this happen,” said Stroshine, specifically thanking the City of Keene, Keene State and Cheshire Medical Center for their support.

Saturday will see the normal pre-race pasta dinner, with keynote speaker Bill Rodgers, who will be running the half marathon Sunday.