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A push to reach herd immunity by getting vaccines to the hesitant

Convincing the skeptical to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a long and precarious process.

David Ross, the administrator at Hillsborough County Nursing Home, has been chipping away at hesitancy among staff and some residents since January.

“It’s a delicate balance,” he said. “We don’t want people to feel — I don’t want to use the word harassed — but harangued at work. They made a personal decision. You know, I’m trying to be respectful of that.”

But Ross is also acutely aware of how quickly one case of COVID-19 can spiral into disaster. The virus killed more people at his nursing home than any other similar facility in the state — across two separate outbreaks, there were 254 infections among staff members and 52 people died.

“A good analogy is a match to a hay bale,” he said. “It would just ignite.”

Likely because of the particularly severe outbreaks, Hillsborough has an impressive percentage of fully vaccinated employees compared to most nursing homes across the state and country — 79 percent of his staff and 96 percent of his residents are fully vaccinated.

A lot of the vaccination advocacy comes from his staff who are trying to avoid a repeat of the last year.

“We lived such an experience here that I think that there’s a lot of peer pressure within the building for folks,” he said. “When you ask someone whenever we have an upcoming clinic, ‘oh have you been vaccinated yet?’ their eyes just roll because they’ve been peppered so many times.”

Still, some of his staff, like Mary Cameron, have maintained that they don’t want to get the vaccine.

Cameron has worked at Hillsborough for 20 years in the laundry department. Though she didn’t directly care for the ailing residents, she still felt the effects of COVID outbreaks. During the pandemic, she layered on gowns, gloves and masks to handle linens from residents with the virus. Like all other staff, she was subject to COVID-19 screening and testing requirements.

She said she doesn’t want to get COVID-19, but she also doesn’t want to get a vaccine that she doesn’t fully believe is safe. Cameron does not usually get the annual flu shot and rarely ever takes aspirin for headaches.

“I’m kind of watching and waiting just to see how effective it is,” she said. “I don’t want it to cause another issue inside of me.”

She said she worries about the side effects her colleagues have experienced from their shots — side effects like headaches, tiredness and chills are relatively common and signal the body’s immune cells are doing their jobs.

Cameron also brought up an incident Ross has been fielding several questions about. Last week, a fully vaccinated staff member at Hillsborough tested positive for the virus. While vaccines offer nearly 100 percent protection against hospitalization and death from the virus, they don’t promise complete protection against developing the virus in the first place.

Even though Ross saw the incident as a testament to the effectiveness of vaccines — the employee had very mild symptoms and no other residents or staff members on her unit tested positive for the virus — he said it deterred a lot of people who were on the fence about getting vaccinated.

“Maybe in a couple of years I would consider it if it worked really well on everyone else,” Cameron said. “I’m just not interested.”

The 18 percent

As the percentage of fully vaccinated Granite Staters has quickly climbed over the last few months, 18 percent of the population has held firm that they would “almost certainly” not get the vaccine, according to a recent poll from the UNH Survey Center.

Andrew Smith, a professor at UNH who headed the survey, has been tracking this group in monthly surveys since the first concrete details about vaccines started emerging in January.

Using the demographic data he’s collected, he’s pieced together a vague archetype of this 18 percent of the state’s population. Statistically, members of this group are likely middle aged, live in a rural part of the state, identify as Republican and have been educated up to the high school level.

“You can generally characterize them as essentially the kind of voters that got Donald Trump elected in the 2016 election,” Smith said.

Like Cameron, many respondents cited a lack of trust in the vaccine’s safety and skepticism about the vaccine’s effectiveness as the reasons they would be forgoing their shot.

To a certain extent, this wave of unwavering resistance to the vaccine has been built into the state’s vaccination plans.

“Hopefully we will have as high of an uptake as possible,” said Gov. Chris Sununu at a recent press conference. “We understand, though, at the end of the day 30 percent to 40 percent maybe might not get the vaccine. ... That’s just a reality.”

But the reality in which more than a third of Granite Staters refuse the vaccine threatens the possibility that New Hampshire will reach “herd immunity,” when enough people are immune to the virus so that it can no longer spread.

Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, has suggested that between 75 and 80 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.

Michael Calderwood, the chief quality officer and infectious disease expert at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said the exact percentage is largely dependent on the contagiousness of the virus and the vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing the virus from spreading — both of which have been up for debate since new variants have taken hold in the United States. He said Dartmouth-Hitchcock is aiming to vaccinate more than 70 percent of its staff.

“There’s not a perfect number,” Calderwood said.

With no plans to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine, the state is hoping that education will help change some minds.

In early April, Governor Chris Sununu launched a $330,000 public health campaign to encourage vaccination, a reimbursable expense under FEMA disaster grants.

The campaign — which includes social media posts, television ads and billboards with bright colors and peppy slogans like, “This is your shot to get back to normal” — plans to target younger residents.

Over the next couple weeks, the state will also start making vaccines more readily available at doctor’s offices to “enable those one-on-one conversations that some folks want before making the decision to get vaccinated,” said Brandon Pratt, a spokesperson for Sununu.

Dr. Michael McLeod, the associate chief clinical officer at Concord Hospital, said he’s often able to talk through any concerns his patients have about the vaccines.

After he explains the vaccine approval process and breaks down the data about side affects, many people’s hesitancy softens.

“It wasn’t designed in somebody’s garage, you know like, ‘hey, we’ll just give it to the population see what happens,’ ” he said. “I think most folks feel better about that and I get a good number of folks say ‘based on that, I think I might change my mind.’ ”

But he also acknowledged that there’s a limit to what this type of conversation can accomplish.

“Education helps a good amount of the time,” McLeod said. “But for someone who’s never who had a vaccine in the last 30 years now, they don’t all of a sudden say, ‘Oh, that totally makes sense’.”

In fact, for many of the vaccine-averse, any amount of cajoling, incentivizing or mandating seemed to have the opposite effect. About a quarter of respondents said they would be less likely to get the vaccine if a personal doctor recommended it. Nearly a third of respondents said they would be similarly dissuaded if friends asked them to get vaccinated.

The survey proposed nine scenarios like this: your employer required the vaccine, the vaccine was required to fly on an airplane, your family received the vaccine and experienced few side effects. In response to each question, more than half of respondents said the scenario would not change the likelihood that they will get the shot.

“I think it’s pushing against that libertarian streak that they shouldn’t be required to get any sort of medical treatment that they don’t want,” Smith said.

Smith doesn’t think the hesitancy will last forever. As more freedoms are granted to those with proof of vaccination, the 18 percent will gradually shrink, he predicted.

“People say a lot of things and change their minds later,” he said.

Already Ross has seen this play out on a small scale in his nursing home. Once he announced that vaccinated staff would no longer need to quarantine after traveling, thereby decreasing the number of days-off they had to allocate for each vacation, 30 people signed up for a vaccine appointment.

Cameron said even though that particular requirement didn’t incentivize her, she would oblige if the facility mandated the COVID vaccine, a possibility that Ross said may be possible but unlikely in the near future.

Until then, Ross and his employees will keep respectfully, but forcefully, educating about the vaccine.

“We’ll just keep kindly wearing them down,” he said.

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Fire departments across the region celebrate life of Chesterfield firefighter
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CHESTERFIELD — A planned parade to honor a longtime Chesterfield firefighter as he battled cancer instead became a celebration of his life Saturday, with firefighters across the region paying tribute to him.

Steven Chickering Sr., who served with the Chesterfield Fire Department for nearly 40 years, died Monday at age 61 from pancreatic cancer.

On Saturday, “we had fire trucks from all over the place,” said Jay Meyer, coordinator of Pink Heals Vermont — the local chapter of a nationwide initiative that aims to show support and help funding efforts for people in need. “It was just an amazing turnout for the family ... Chesterfield took every truck out of their barn to show support for one of their own.”

Meyer had begun planning a visit to the Chickering family home shortly before Chickering died, reaching out to local fire departments to see if they could send engines to participate in a parade along with the Pink Heals fire truck Meyer uses during the visits. Less than a week before the event was set to take place, Chickering lost his battle with cancer.

Meyer wasn’t sure whether the family would still want the event. But, just a few hours after Chickering’s passing, Meyer said he got the call that the family wanted to move forward as planned, except now, it would be celebration of his life.

So Meyer continued reaching out to area fire departments and, on Saturday, 38 fire vehicles from 22 departments, a personal fire truck and Meyer’s pink truck all lined up at the Hannaford parking lot in Brattleboro and then made their way to the Chickering home in Chesterfield.

They lined up on Poor Road, where they expressed their sympathy and support to Chickering’s loved ones. He is survived by his wife of 37 years, Deborah Chickering; his children Steven Chickering Jr. and Megan Pratt; and two grandchildren, with another on the way.

Meyer invited the family to sign the driver’s-side door of the pink truck, saying it was the most appropriate place, since driving “his” fire truck, 7 Engine 2, was one of Chickering’s favorite parts of the job.

After the meeting with the Chickering family, the trucks got back on the road, to see Chickering to his final resting place at the Chesterfield West Cemetery.

Meyer did not know when he first reached out to help, after seeing a Facebook post from a woman whose father, a firefighter, was battling cancer, that the man was Chickering, an old friend and co-worker.

Meyer said he and Chickering met in the mid-1980s when they worked together at the old Valley Motors facility on Chesterfield Hill.

“I was shocked. I didn’t know he was sick,” Meyer said. “He was a good guy, a good friend.”

Meyer said this was the first event he’s done for a firefighter since he got involved in the Pink Heals initiative in 2013, despite the pink fire truck that serves as the organization’s mascot, a show of support for people who are struggling.

Chickering’s family said they appreciated all those who honored his life.

“The outpouring of love and support from everyone; fire depts, bikers, family, friends and community members was amazing and a testament to how many lives my husband touched,” Deborah Chickering said in a statement to The Sentinel. “We knew him at home as a loving husband, father and grandfather but the community also knew him for his big heart and kind soul.”

His children, Steven Chickering Jr. and Megan Pratt, said, “Dad was a go big or go home kind of guy, so this was a perfect tribute to the kind of man he was.”

Americans return to in-person church with emotion and uncertainty

Over 13 months, Sunday church had devolved for Justin Chang into sitting at a laptop in his room, alone in his sweatpants, watching services online. Sometimes he would sleep in and miss the live service altogether.

For Chang, the pandemic was a spiritual shock. Before, much of his communal life revolved around church, in particular Christ Central Presbyterian Church in Centreville, Va. The traditional Korean American congregation was where he had grown up, had a faith crisis, was brought to Jesus in high school and where his faith was rooted. During the year, he questioned where he was living, worried about a work contract drying up and wondered about God’s purpose for him.

On Sunday, the tall 26-year-old civil engineer beamed as he walked into the bright, sunny church, fist-bumping at check-in, then greeting a high school friend who had become the church drummer. During the service, Chang watched the lights come down and people around him outstretched their arms in prayer. He stood with his eyes closed, feeling the vibrations of the band’s music.

He was back at church.

“It’s like a small glimpse of heaven,” he said of the in-person worship experience, something that’s been elusive for millions of Americans since March 2020. “We can’t hug, but seeing people in person, worshiping in person, it’s so different from singing at a television in the living room. You can feel the music, feel God’s presence, be in sanctity with other believers, have some sense of normalcy.”

The wave of coronavirus vaccinations across the United States in recent weeks is allowing some people to experience in-person worship after the pandemic upended their spiritual lives. According to Pew Research, about 45 percent of Americans attended worship services at least monthly before the pandemic. For those who seek in-person worship, vaccinations and loosened legal restrictions are bringing them back to a place that cannot be replicated.

Since about Easter, April 4, attendance numbers at Christ Central have been on an upward trajectory, said Senior Pastor Owen Lee — which is part of a national trend. Pew said the percentage of people who said they went to a religious service in the past month went from 33 percent in July 2020 to 42 percent in March.

Before the pandemic, the large Centreville church held two services to fit in 700 or 800 people on Sundays. When shutdowns began, many tuned in to a live stream. In September, when the church began offering limited, socially distanced in-person worship, it got about 20 or 30 people at one service, Lee said. That number stayed about the same until about Easter.

Since then, the numbers have risen. On April 25, 140 people attended. This Sunday, 76 people spread out among the wooden pews, facing toward the high-ceilinged stage, where Lee and other clergy stood below two large screens across which words, song lyrics and scripture bits pass. Musicians and singers were spread to their right and left.

Easter, he said, was the first time the room began to look populated.

“To see faces, to hear people singing together, greeting each other awkwardly — it was so good to be together, like family,” Lee said. “Some people were weeping. It was one of the sweetest days.”

Although more crowded, the sparsely filled pews of the cavernous sanctuary are a reminder that at Christ Central, as at almost all American congregations, the future of worship in 2021 is uncertain.

From the start of the pandemic, clergy and worship experts have warned of potential consequences of a year away from in-person church. Many houses of worship have invested in video-streaming capabilities and online programming, while other, smaller congregations that cannot afford such technology have focused on Facebook Live, phone calls or visits. Some people realized that they prefer the convenience of online worship. Some have a new routine. Some are realizing that they do not want to go back.

At Christ Central, Lee said a recent questionnaire showed that about 20 percent of the congregation had stopped attending altogether. “That was heartbreaking,” he said.

Lee said the pandemic sped up the effects of the Internet. In the future, he said he expects Christ Central to trim back the smorgasbord of programmatic offerings.

“We’re realizing, people who were there just for the frill, they’re gone,” he said. “And those who are staying are committed to our mission. We may be smaller and stronger.”

Also in the pews Sunday was Peter Kim, who teaches high school and has been a regular for 15 years. He returned to services early this year, even before he got his vaccine. Now he comes alone; his wife and son stay home.

After the service, his eyes were moist. The messages he heard about Jesus’ presence and love and forgiveness, he said, mean a lot during a period of uncertainty. He thinks of his oldest son, whom he drove during the pandemic to Portland, Ore., for an internship. He thinks of his students, whom he could see through the screen suffering from stress and isolation.

“We need to hear the gospel again and again,” he said. “It refocuses us.”

Jenny Kim came up to greet him after services. Her spouse and children were at home, too.

The less crowded church suits her, she said. In normal times, she found loads of people — many of whom she knows — to be distracting. She likes being there in the relative quiet.

“The whole year my heart wasn’t engaged. We’re not meant to be apart,” she said. “And here, you’re not.”

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Hinsdale voters reject School Street project at town meeting
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HINSDALE — The roughly 100 residents combined who attended the annual town and school district meetings Saturday morning at Hinsdale Middle/High School arrived via School Street.

But at the town session, voters rejected a warrant article that would have funded the reconstruction of that road, which runs through the heart of the school’s shared campus with Hinsdale Elementary School. The article, which required a two-thirds majority but failed by a ballot vote of 40-44, was the only one defeated during either of the meetings.

The School Street project would have cost an estimated $852,000, though the bulk of that money — $681,600 — would have come from federal grants through the Transportation Alternatives Program, with another $50,000 withdrawn from an expendable trust fund established for School Street improvements. The town would have borrowed up to $120,400 in bonds to complete the project, contingent upon the town receiving the grants.

Residents who spoke against the project said it’s not absolutely necessary, and it would be too costly for taxpayers whom they believe are already overburdened.

“That kind of money coming from the federal grant sounds like a great deal, but it’s still a lot of money for the town of Hinsdale to put into a road,” Selectman Richard Johnson said. “And I’m not convinced that we need it. ... That road has functioned for a lot of years. It continues to function today. While it might be nice, in some aspects, to have that project done, I certainly don’t put it at the top of the list.”

Donna Suskawicz, a 70-year-old resident, said she hasn’t retired yet because she needs a job to be able to afford her property taxes, noting that the School Street project would only add to her tax bill.

“For me, I’ve lost three friends in the last three months who can no longer pay the taxes, who are retired, have to sell their houses and they moved out of town,” she said. “It’s emotionally upsetting to me to see so many good people and so many neighbors and friends — my family’s been here since 1920 — to see everybody have to leave.”

Suskawicz added that she doesn’t think the town should be spending that much money on the School Street project while people are struggling financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we really have to tighten our belts this year,” she said. “We can’t afford to lose more citizens. We can’t afford to have our taxes go up any more.”

With the warrant article defeated, Town Administrator Jill Collins said Hinsdale’s grant application, the status of which wouldn’t have been decided until June, is now void. Collins added that she plans to apply for the grant again the next time it is available, likely in 2023.

In the meantime, proponents of the School Street project say the road’s current state is a safety issue for students at the district’s two schools, especially during drop-off and pick-up times.

“This road is a disaster area when there’s students leaving the school, children getting picked up, [at] basketball games, baseball games, soccer games. Someone is going to get hurt, and it’s going to be a child,” said Ann Marie Diorio, a resident who is the executive assistant to Hinsdale’s superintendent. “... We have an opportunity right now to fix a safety issue in this town.”

Among other modifications, the School Street reconstruction — which would have taken place over the next four years, Collins said — would have added several crosswalks with pedestrian safety islands and granite curbs in front of the schools.

Aside from the School Street project, the rest of the town warrant articles passed with little to no opposition, with one exception.

Hinsdale Community Development Coordinator Kathryn Lynch moved to pass over a warrant article that would have established a rail-to-trail expendable trust fund using $15,000 from the town’s general fund. After discussing the article with the budget committee and the selectboard, Lynch said she decided to pursue her request in the future instead, and her motion to pass over the article was approved.

Voters also approved a $15,000 appropriation to the Hinsdale Historical Society, a figure that was originally $10,000 on the warrant. But resident Linda Page moved to amend the article to the higher amount, which ultimately passed by voice vote. Sharron Smith, the historical society’s vice president, said it costs about $15,000 a year just to maintain Col. Ebenezer Hinsdale House, where the society is located, along with the three barns and blacksmith shop that are on the property.

The town’s $4,631,776 budget, up slightly over the $4,518,996 approved last year, passed with no audible opposition. And, in addition to contributions to various trust funds, voters also approved a pair of articles related to the town’s emergency services.

An article authorizing the town to enter into a four-year lease for two Dodge SUV police vehicles at a total cost of $88,000 passed by voice vote. The first year’s payment will be $23,950, and the town will own the vehicles at the end of the lease, Police Chief Charles Rataj said. Voters also approved raising $60,000 for the fire department to upgrade its radios.

In the school district meeting, which preceded the town session, voters approved a $14,218,291 operating budget, up less than 0.5 percent from the current year’s $14,150,937 budget. The approved 2021-22 budget is $226,663 less than the one originally proposed by district administrators, school board Chairman Sean Leary said, with those cuts coming from a variety of categories with the goal of keeping the budget flat.

Along with the operating budget, voters also approved a three-year contract with the Hinsdale Support Staff Association, which represents 36 paraprofessionals and instructional assistants, along with eight custodians and maintenance staff members. The collective bargaining agreement includes an estimated $44,465 increase in salaries and benefits for 2021-22, and a three-year total increase of $127,520.

Hinsdale’s town and school district meetings were delayed from March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though residents still voted on zoning amendments and town and school district officers at the polls on March 9.