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Local COVID-19 update
Bright spots in Keene hospital's COVID data, but positivity rate remains high
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In the final weeks of September, Cheshire Medical Center saw a decrease in COVID-19 inpatients, according to data from the Keene hospital.

And while the downward trend is promising, the percent positivity rate the hospital is reporting — about 7 percent as of Sept. 24 — is still alarming, President and CEO Dr. Don Caruso said.

“I think more people are masking, and I think that’s what’s making a difference,” he said. “... But the reality is, until we get below 2 [percent] positivity, there will be considerable community spread.”

Starting in August, the state saw a surge in COVID-19 cases driven largely by the virus’ more-contagious delta variant, after reporting relatively low levels for the first months of summer. But in the past week, new cases have begun to decline again.

As of Tuesday, New Hampshire’s seven-day average was about 458 new cases, a drop of about 5 percent from the week prior.

Cheshire County continues to see substantial community transmission, according to the state health department, but logged the lowest number of new cases in the past two weeks (302) among New Hampshire’s 10 counties. When expressed per 100,000 people, Cheshire County had among the lowest rates during this time period.

During the week of Sept. 17, Cheshire Medical Center reported a positivity rate — the proportion of COVID-19 tests coming back positive — of 8.3 percent among those who received a test through the hospital. For the following week, the most recent for which data are available, that rate decreased to 7.3 percent, marking the third week of lower numbers.

However, the hospital is conducting more tests — from 895 to 983 during those weeks — which could play a role in the lower rates, according to Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious-disease expert at Cheshire Medical.

As with other vaccines, it is possible to contract COVID-19 after being immunized, though studies show such cases are rare and that viral symptoms are typically milder.

“The people who are vaccinated have better outcomes,” Caruso said. “Really, what we see is if you’re vaccinated [and] you get so sick and you have to be on a ventilator, you’re going to survive and come off the ventilator ... We have not had an unvaccinated person come off the ventilator.”

While rare, COVID-19 can lead to death in vaccinated people. Of the 398 COVID-19-related deaths the state recorded from late January to early September of this year, 7.6 percent were considered breakthrough cases, a spokeswoman with the state health department said previously.

Three percent of the state’s total case numbers during that timeframe — 1,562 of 51,260 — were considered breakthrough infections.

In addition to urging people to get vaccinated against the viral disease, Caruso said masking is crucial when out in public — regardless of vaccination status — to keep numbers down.

“What worries me most are the percent that are vaccinated that are still getting COVID,” he said. “We don’t like to talk about that because we think that will make people not want to get vaccinated, but the reality is vaccinated people can get the virus ... and they are helping the transmission.”

Morning fog settles over Island Pond in Stoddard recently. Morning fog has been commonplace this week, though the sun has been eventually breaking through. But mostly cloudy skies are in the weekend forecast.

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Councilor proposes Keene hit back on meals and rooms tax revenue
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Keene City Councilor Randy Filiault has proposed taking action against the state after New Hampshire’s meals and rooms tax was lowered, which Filiault said will shift more of the tax burden to property owners.

In a letter Tuesday to the City Council and Mayor George Hansel, Filiault suggests a pair of options. The first is to sue the state, and the second is to discuss potentially having local businesses pay only 60 percent of the tax to the state and send the other 40 percent to the city.

As part of the state’s most recent two-year budget, which the Legislature passed this June, the meals and rooms tax rate — which is applied to room rentals and prepared meals — was decreased from 9 to 8.5 percent. In his letter, Filiault says the decrease may look positive, but it comes with consequences.

“While this may appear as a tax reduction, it actually will result in increased property taxes for Keene residents in addition to an increased need for the State to make up funds owed to the city because of that budget shortfall,” Filiault wrote.

According to state law, all money collected through the meals and rooms tax must be paid to the state treasurer, though 40 percent of that amount is to be directed to municipalities based on their population. However, Filiault noted that this is routinely ignored and said that last year Keene received only 21 percent.

Despite the city’s sending a number of letters and resolutions to the state about this, revenues Filiault said are owed to Keene still have not been paid.

“I put a couple proposals on the table; I’m not going to say if one, or either, will or could happen,” Filiault said. “But it starts the conversation again about what do we do to start enforcing the state RSAs?”

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said that in the past decade Keene’s share of the meals and rooms tax revenues has been trending down until this year, when the share was increased from approximately 20 to 30 percent. While not the 40 percent the city is supposed to receive, she said, it does help, and this year’s payment will amount to more than $400,000 over the last payment of $1.85 million.

“This is a big step in the right direction,” Dragon said in an email. “We depend on these revenues each year to balance our budget. If for some reason these revenues were not received or were dramatically reduced it would have a detrimental impact to our budget and ultimately the services we provide.”

Had the city been receiving the full 40 percent since 2011, she said Keene would have received more than $8.8 million more in that time frame, adding that the funds have been retained by the state to balance its budget.

When Keene doesn’t receive the funding it expects from the state, Filiault said, it must make up those dollars by either cutting services or raising taxes. He said he’s concerned that the recent 0.5 percent reduction in the meals and rooms tax will cause the state to send municipalities less money. While this might equate to a small savings for consumers, he said, it will hurt property taxpayers.

“We’ve reached an unsustainable level in terms of property taxes — we’ve actually surpassed that,” he said. “It’s certainly unsustainable in the future to raise property taxes. But ... we have a city to run.”

Keene isn’t the only local government to be affected by the lower-than-promised meals and rooms tax payments. Filiault said he’s been working with Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates on this issue and said the hope is to get all of New Hampshire’s 10 counties involved.

Coates wasn’t immediately reachable for comment Thursday.

However, the matter came up Wednesday morning at a Cheshire County commissioners meeting. County staff and commissioners discussed several issues related to the state’s tendency to downshift costs to the local level and the impact this has on communities.

“When I hear that mantra of ‘no new taxes,’ you’re doing it all the time,” Coates said of state lawmakers during the commissioners’ meeting. “You’re feeing us to death, you’re changing formulas, you’re passing things down to us on a regular basis that then we have to carry as a county, as a school district, as cities and towns, and as a taxpayer. And what does that solve?”

Filiault’s proposal was on the agenda for Thursday’s council meeting, where it was sent to the council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee.

Nobel Peace Prize
Journalists known for taking on governments of Philippines and Russia win Nobel Peace Prize

Editors Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov on Friday won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their fight for a free and independent press in a major boost to journalists amid increasing pressures on freedom of expression around the world.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, praised the journalists from the Philippines and Russia for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which she called “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” Reiss-Andersen also alluded to the rise of authoritarianism and fake news around the world.

“Giving the Peace Prize to two very courageous outstanding journalists that have proved excellent in their profession really illustrates what it means to be a journalist and how you exercise freedom of expression even under the most difficult and destructive circumstances,” she said.

In a tearful interview right after the award was announced, Ressa described it as “a recognition of the difficulties, but also hopefully of how we’re going to win the battle for truth, the battle for facts: We hold the line.”

In a subsequent interview, she added that “the fact that a journalist from the Philippines and Russia won the Nobel Peace Prize tells you about the state of the world today.”

Muratov, for his part, said the prize was a tribute to the courage of the newspaper’s journalists, not to him.

“I’ll tell you this: this is not my merit. This is Novaya Gazeta. It is for those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech. Since they are not with us, they [the Nobel Committee] apparently decided that I should speak for them,” he told Tass news agency.

The statement from the committee called them “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”

Joel Simon, director of the press watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, itself a nominee this year, called it “a powerful recognition of their tireless work, and that of journalists all around the world. Their struggle is our struggle.”

Muratov, who founded the Novaya Gazeta in 1993, has for decades “defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions,” the committee said.

Independent news media in Russia face a sweeping crackdown as President Vladimir Putin consolidates power and crushes opposition members, activists, human rights lawyers and civil society in the run-up to 2024 presidential election.

Russian authorities have labeled many independent media “foreign agents,” threatening their survival, and have harassed and arrested journalists, many of whom have fled the country. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was happy to congratulate Muratov for the award and described him as “talented and brave” and “committed to his ideals.”

The award could possibly extend some kind of protection to Russia’s broader community of journalists, said independent journalist and political analyst Yevgenia Albats.

“I hope that this status of Muratov will protect Novaya Gazeta from being designated a foreign agent,” she said, in comments to Russian media. “I hope it will help Russian journalism to survive in these difficult conditions.”

Since its founding, six journalists from Novaya Gazeta have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who reported fearlessly on human rights abuses in Chechnya and was shot dead outside her apartment in 2006.

Yuri Shchekochikhin was investigating Russian authorities’ role in a series of the 1999 apartment bombings for Novaya Gazeta when he contracted a mysterious illness in July 2003 and died suddenly. His medical documents were deemed classified by Russian authorities.

Natalia Estemirova, a close friend of Politkovskaya, investigated and exposed the torture, enforced disappearances and murders of civilians in Chechnya. In 2009 she was kidnapped outside her apartment in Grozny, Chechnya and her body was found in neighboring Ingushetia. She was shot dead execution style.

The newspaper has reported on corruption, electoral fraud, police violence, Russian military actions and the presence of Russian mercenaries in Syria, Africa and elsewhere.

In the case of Ressa, the statement said that she exposed abuses of power, the use of violence and the “growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines.”

Ressa, 58, is the chief executive of the Rappler news website in 2011, which she co-founded after covering Southeast Asia for two decades with CNN.

Under the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Ressa herself and her news organization have repeatedly been targeted through campaigns of online harassment and criminal charges, which have been widely seen as politically motivated. Time magazine named her, along with other journalists, a “person of the year” in 2018.

Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel last June and has spent recent years shuttling back and forth to courts in the Philippines, defending herself and her news organization against a litany of charges.

She was issued 10 arrest warrants in the span of less than two years and is fighting nine separate cases. Throughout, she has remained a staunch advocate of freedom of the press, saying after her conviction in June 2020 that the case was not about Rappler but about every Filipino, “because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen.”

She has also emerged as a strong opponent of violence against female journalists more broadly, and along with Rappler has done pioneering reporting on cyber harassment, online trolls and disinformation and misinformation campaigns.

Ressa repeatedly warned Facebook about the dangers of misinformation campaigns in her home country and elsewhere. She noted in aWashington Post op-ed this May that she first wrote about Facebook’s problematic algorithms back in 2016, arguing that they have only gotten worse five years later.

“When we live in a world where facts are debatable, where the world’s largest distributor of news prioritizes the spread of lies laced with anger and hate and spreads it faster and further than facts, then journalism becomes activism,” she said Friday in an interview.

At the height of online harassment against her, likely the work of paid troll farms, Ressa recorded 90 hate messages an hour sent to her on social media — after Rappler ran an investigative series on the weaponizing of social media.

Philippine activists and journalists celebrated Ressa’s win as a step toward ending a culture of impunity within the country. The Philippines under Duterte has been devastated by a brutal “war on drugs,” itself fueled by social media and sophisticated online propaganda.

The Duterte administration has repeatedly pushed back against accusations of human rights abuses and says it does not oppose the free press. Duterte has called Ressa a “fraud.” Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. said, in a tweet responding to the Nobel honor, “it was a fight and she won.” He previously defended her arrest and said Ressa had “failed to defend herself” in court.

In 2020, the Nobel Peace Prize went to the United Nations’ World Food Program for its role in addressing food supply crises and trying to improve conditions in conflict zones. The agency was also at the forefront of dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic around the world and the accompanying rise in hunger.

The prize is a gold medal and an award of $1.14 million dollars.

It was set up by the will of Swedish businessman and inventor Alfred Nobel in 1895 with the aim of celebrating the people or organizations working for “fraternity between nations,” reducing standing armies and promoting “peace congresses.” Over the years, those criteria have been interpreted to also include the promotion of human rights.

Nobel also endowed prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature.

Unlike the other prizes, which are selected and awarded in Sweden, Nobel chose a Norwegian committee, selected by that country’s parliament, to administer the peace prize.

‘It’s like a time of war’: Public meetings throughout the state marked by anger and harassment

Yes, hate groups and right-wing extremists have made appearances in the increasingly angry fight in New Hampshire against vaccine mandates, mask policies, pandemic shutdowns, lessons on racism, unproven voter fraud, and even pronoun use. But the fight is being waged by your neighbors, not armed extremist groups in tactical gear.

Angry and frustrated teachers, parents, nurses, students, elected officials, and community members — many who’ve never been politically engaged before — are packing and often disrupting school and select board meetings across the state. And they are having an impact.

“To go and voice your opinion to your public officials, that is how our republic functions,” said Andrew Manuse, co-founder of RebuildNH, a group helping to organize many of the protests. “We’ve been clamoring for how many years that people are not showing up for elections and not showing up for public meetings? People who have never been involved before are getting involved. We would say that’s a good thing, and it is.”

Manuse encourages followers to do so civilly. Many do, like the hundreds who marched in Concord Saturday for “medical freedom.”

But many do not.

A long-serving Hollis selectman resigned last month after being heckled for wearing a mask to a meeting, even as he explained he did so to avoid passing COVID-19 to his 101-year-old mother-in-law and two medically compromised relatives. A state representative was sworn at and reported to House leadership after she took a picture of a protester who was recording video of her at a school board meeting.

Angry protesters shut down an Executive Council meeting last week where law enforcement escorted state employees to their cars. Some of the same angry protesters stopped the state Department of Health and Human Services from rewriting the vaccine registry’s rules they believed expanded the state’s reach. Gov. Chris Sununu canceled a “603 Tour” stop last month, citing a concern for attendees’ safety.

Lorrie Carey, a Merrimack Valley School Board member who has held local elected and volunteer positions for 30 years, said she listened in disbelief at an August meeting as parents swore and yelled at board members during a mask policy discussion. The board canceled a meeting the next month and called for police backup when attendees who declined to wear masks also declined to watch the meeting from the cafeteria, a designated mask-free zone.

“Our meetings have been the victim of politicalization,” Carey said. “We have to consider the behavior of those who will attend. You have to think about, how will I get in or out of the meeting? It’s like a time of war. I never thought I’d see that in the United States of America.”

New Hampshire is far from alone. Citing a spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against public school officials, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday said he has directed the FBI to meet with local officials to coordinate a response.

Sununu last week downplayed the protest that shut down the Executive Council meeting as an outlier event, but said the state has talked with members of school boards and select boards about managing public discord at meetings. The New Hampshire School Boards Association also addressed those topics in training for school board members in September.

“We’ve been seeing the news about disruptions at school board meetings and certainly have received a number of inquiries,” said Executive Director Barrett Christina.

Save for a disorderly conduct arrest of an anti-mask protester at a Timberlane School Board meeting in May, public anger has been loud and emotional but not physical or criminal. Though, some school districts, including Merrimack Valley and Merrimack, now have a police officer at meetings.

Asked if he fears protests, including those involving RebuildNH followers, will become violent, Manuse said, “I don’t want that and we made it pretty clear that we support civil protest.” The group’s goal, he said, is restoring state sovereignty and limiting government overreach.

Asked again to consider the possibility of anger escalating into violence, Manuse said people “are going to get angrier the more pressure that is put on.”

Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said he believes contentious public comments at board meetings are slowing down, not escalating, as residents turn to another tool: petitions for special school district meetings. “I think as a result of COVID, there were pointed interactions between community and school boards,” Edelblut said. “And as a result of COVID, I think they might have been more widespread. I do think we’ve turned a corner.”

Manuse disagrees.

“I think you are going to see more anger the more people are pressured by losing their jobs over not taking the vaccine and having their kids be forced to wear masks,” Manuse said. “The people in government are going to attempt to use force against a population that is supposed to be free. I think, yes, you’re going to see some more angry people.”

Watch YouTube videos of September school and select board meetings and you’ll hear frustrated residents lined up at the microphone, telling elected officials they should be ashamed of themselves and voted out. A nurse from Londonderry grew frustrated in early September when her school board could not answer her questions about the school’s COVID-19 testing policy. Her frustration turned to anger when one board member told her testing was happening all over the country.

“I don’t care,” she said, adding, “You should all be fired” before taking her seat.

Rep. Rosemarie Rung, a Merrimack Democrat, attended her local school board meeting last month to encourage the adoption of a mask mandate given a recent increase in new infections. While there, she photographed a man who was recording video of her because, she said, she has been threatened in the past. Doing so upset many in the room and one man in particular who moved from his seat to one next to Rung, and by his own admission, gave her the middle finger.

In a complaint the man later filed to House leadership, he accused Rung of telling him he “should be in a mental hospital for walking around without a mask” and acting inappropriately by taking his photo. “A true leader stands above the muck, not stirs it,” he wrote in his complaint to House leadership.

In her response, Rung shared a text message she received during the meeting from another attendee who watched their interactions. “Please have someone walk you out,” it said.

“It was definitely a mob mentality,” Rung said. “To me, this is beyond the facts or the issues of the COVID-19 vaccine, and it’s beyond mask mandates. I think the (level of) organization … is just trying to disrupt democracy.”

Rep. Kat McGhee, a Democrat from Hollis, is worried the angry attacks are going to discourage people from seeking office. She pointed to the September resignation of an 18-year veteran of the Hollis select board who was heckled for wearing a mask at a meeting. McGhee said she thinks organizations from outside the state are fueling the discord and fear here with misinformation about COVID-19 and other contentious topics.

“Our local control relies on people of good will stepping up and volunteering in their communities, and that’s what’s under threat,” she said. “The majority of the public is blissfully unaware.”

Simone Boodey, a private school teacher from Barrington, counted herself among them until August, when concerns about schools’ mask-optional policies prompted her to found NH Educators for Safe Schools. Membership in her Facebook group grew slowly until she made the group private, and just over a month in, she has about 240 members.

“They have created this culture of intimidation,” she said of those protesting what she sees as sensible COVID-19 safety protocols. “People are not waking up very fast, and I was one of those people.”

Her goal is to start a positive conversion that promotes public education and public health. “If we don’t step forward soon, we are going to lose our state,” she said.

She knows she’s outnumbered as a “one-woman show” right now. She’s right.

RebuildNH, Manuse’s locally founded and run group has had no trouble finding supporters. Within hours last month, it persuaded more than 250 people to write letters to the Department of Health and Human Services objecting to the state’s proposed changes to the vaccine registry access and the opt-in and opt-out processes. (The department announced Monday it was abandoning those rule changes for now.) Even more people have signed on to a petition against the $27 million in federal funding, believing the contracts will cede the state’s constitutional authority to the federal government. The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the contract language at Sununu’s request. Elected officials who’ve received emails from the group’s members describe them as personal notes, not form letters.

The group is working closely with Health Freedom New Hampshire, which keeps a public calendar of school board meetings across the state with notes about pertinent masking or other COVID-19 related agenda items. RebuildNH cross promotes those meetings, calling on all “patriots” to attend to “protect our children,” even if they don’t live in the district. Most posts are viewed 400 to 500 times and often generate 20 or more comments.

When Merrimack School Board member Jenna Hardy asked in a Facebook post for “reasonable” people to attend a September school board meeting to give the “loud minority a reality check,” RebuildNH issued an alert in its online chat room. “The ‘reasonable’ people are trying to organize against all you ‘loud, angry’ people who won’t stand for systemic abuse of children,” it said. “Time to SHOW UP and show Ms. Hardy how angry you really are.”

Hardy declined to comment prior to the meeting and did not attend, saying afterward that she had a prior commitment. RebuildNH, however, saw her absence as its victory: “Jenna [Hardy] did not show up. That action by itself yells out that she was wrong for posting.”