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Keene boy draws community support in brain cancer treatment

Rather than celebrating his birthday with cake, presents and friends, Kasch Hastings rang in his 13th year last month with his final round of radiation.

Kasch, a 7th-grader at Keene Middle School, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma — the most common type of cancerous brain tumor in children, which starts in the cerebellum — at the end of January, according to his parents, Shelby and Blayne Hastings of Keene.

“I really want to bring awareness to medulloblastoma because there were so many symptoms that we would’ve had no idea what it was,” Shelby said.

She said getting him diagnosed in the first place was difficult, with many doctors not taking his symptoms of vomiting and severe headaches seriously.

It wasn’t until nearly a year of seeing several different specialists that Kasch finally got some answers, she said, leading her to become a voice of advocacy.

After receiving his diagnosis, and before the radiation began, Kasch underwent a nearly 11-hour surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital to remove the mass. His doctors believe the tumor was entirely removed, Blayne said.

Kasch then received 30 rounds of radiation treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for six weeks, Shelby said, ending on April 21.

His body is now recuperating for five weeks to prepare for his six rounds of chemotherapy, which will last about six months, she said.

“He’s hanging in there,” Blayne said. “He is a tough little kid, he really doesn’t like to really say that he’s hurting and stuff, but you can see it sometimes in his eyes and body.”

And though the family — including Kasch’s older brother, Kyser Gagnon, 18 — was thrilled to celebrate both Kasch’s birthday and the end of radiation, friends of the family arranged for something special on his arrival home that day.

The front of the house was fully decorated with birthday messages, balloons and streamers, according to his parents.

“It was a big surprise for him and his dad,” Shelby said, “because I knew about it, but they didn’t.”

Some of those who helped that day were members of the Keene Knights Youth Football Team, which Kasch is part of. They have rallied behind Kasch from the start, his parents said.

On March 5, the team organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Gordon-Bissell American Legion Post 4 in Keene, with all the proceeds donated to the Hastings family to help offset the cost of Kasch’s treatment.

“The fundraiser went well, a lot of turnout,” Shelby said. “The football community really came through on that.”

Having the community’s support has been a huge help for the Hastings family, as Kasch still has a long road ahead of him.

With the COVID-19 outbreak closing schools through the end of the year, and Kasch just finishing his radiation, he started remote learning only last week.

Shelby noted his teachers at Keene Middle School have worked to help her and Blayne, as well as Kasch, adjust.

“I don’t think the 7th grade is going be in his college transcript,” Blayne joked.

Regardless of the state’s future mandates on schools amid the global pandemic, Shelby said Kasch will continue at-home learning for his 8th-grade year.

“I don’t know what the future looks like,” she said, “but I know the mild chemo he’s had took a toll on him, so I can only imagine what the meds will do to his body.”

From all that she’s learned from this, Shelby said she’s focused on shining a light on the disease.

“It’s the most common cancer in pediatric patients,” she said, “and now a lot of patients could be going through it and not know.”

To donate to the Hastings family, or send Kasch a personal message, email kaschman88@gmail.com.


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NH cable providers report huge increases in traffic

Despite having to handle dramatic increases for service, cable providers have committed to supporting online learning and affordable Internet access through the end of June.

Comcast, the state’s largest Internet provider, reports nationally it has seen a 33 percent increase in upstream traffic (uploads) and a 13 percent increase in downstream traffic, since March 1. Remote work and homeschooling have driven VoIP (voice over internet protocol) and video conferencing up 283 percent.

“Since this all began just six weeks ago, our technology teams have worked tirelessly and our network has performed well both locally and nationally,” said Marc Goodman, Comcast spokesperson for the Greater Boston area.

Similarly, Consolidated Communications, which also serves New Hampshire communities, has seen its network engineers and technicians working 24/7 to maintain network reliability and performance, said Rob Koester, senior vice president, consumer product management. “We’ve had an approximate 20 percent increase in data traffic utilization and a 10 percent increase in voice traffic during this time.”

Both companies say their systems have been able to handle the increased usage.

Comcast reports that nationally gaming downloads are up 35 percent generally, and 80 percent during new releases. And with a 35 percent increase in streaming and web video consumption, there’s been a 250 percent increase in the voice search for “free” content, with voice remote queries topping 50 million some days.

On March 13, Comcast released a COVID-19 response plan, stating it would not disconnect a customer’s Xfinity internet, mobile, or voice service, and would waive late fees if the customer reaches out for help. The company recently extended the provisions through the end of June.

New customers of its Internet Essentials program for low-income households, will receive two free months if they sign on by June 30.

After that the regular rate of $9.95/month applies. The program began nearly a decade ago and in 2018 was expanded to reach out to low income veterans, including more than 30,000 in New Hampshire.

“We’ve continually expanded eligibility,” says Goodman. “It is open to individuals who may live in HUD-assisted housing, or receive a number of federal benefits like Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, or have a child in the national school lunch program.”

He said the fastest way to apply is by using a mobile device, where supporting documentation of acceptance in a qualifying public assistance program can be uploaded, then the customer is shipped everything they need to get connected.

While there will still be some who won’t qualify because of past defaults, Goodman said, if someone is new to the program exceptions can be made. “Due to the coronavirus emergency, those households with debt less than a year old may be eligible, provided they apply and are approved by June 30,” he said.

Consolidated Communications participates in the federal Lifeline program providing a discount on phone and internet services to qualifying low-income families.

“During the past month we’ve been working with thousands of families throughout our service area by offering two months of free home Internet service and no installation fees for families without internet access,” Koester said. “As a broadband provider, we know it is vital to have a secure and stable connection to give all students access to the resources they need.”

Consolidated also plans to continue services through the end of the school year.

Comcast has also opened its Xfinity WiFi hotspots in business and outdoor locations across the country to anyone — including non-subscribers. The company is also offering free educational content, fitness programs, increased access to news and information and has started offering movies that were scheduled for theatrical release.


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NH statistics sketch out scope of COVID-19-related unemployment

Fifteen percent of New Hampshire’s labor force had lost work due to COVID-19 as of two weeks ago, according to a state estimate released Thursday.

The report from the N.H. Department of Employment Security is the latest evidence of the economic devastation caused by COVID-19.

Between March 15 and April 18, New Hampshire residents working in the state filed 116,870 new claims, out of a total workforce of about 780,000, according to the department’s data.

Of those claims, 5,405 came from Cheshire County, representing 13 percent of the local labor force.

The statewide 15-percent figure reflects only New Hampshire residents who filed for unemployment since mid-March — a measure the state is calling the “COVID-19 affected unemployment rate.”

It is not the same as the overall unemployment rate, which may well be higher, according to the state. That’s because the COVID-19 affected rate does not include residents who work in another state or people who were unemployed before the crisis struck. New Hampshire’s overall unemployment rate was about 2.6 percent as of early March.

One thing that makes this economic crisis different from past ones is that public officials don’t necessarily want everyone rushing back to workplaces right now as an infectious disease circulates, said Marie Duggan, a professor of economics at Keene State College.

“Normally, when there’s an unemployment rate of 15 or 20 percent, you would hope to get people back to work,” she said. But in the current situation, public officials want people to largely stay home, she added, “because that’s the only way we know how to stop the spread of the disease.”

That’s why it’s important to financially support people who are not working right now, she said.

Another piece of economic news this past week came in a survey conducted April 18-24 by the Business and Industry Association, an advocacy group representing more than 400 New Hampshire employers.

Of the 108 members that responded, 20 percent had reduced staff as a result of the pandemic, and more were considering doing so. Close to half said they had planned to add employees, before the crisis put hiring on hold.

It’s not a precise reflection of the state’s economic landscape — the survey skewed toward manufacturing and other industries considered essential under Gov. Chris Sununu’s March 26 stay-at-home order, like health care and financial services, said BIA President Jim Roche.

But the health of those companies will be critical to the eventual economic recovery, he said. “Manufacturing in New Hampshire drives the state’s economy in a way that no other sector does.”

He said it was a positive sign that many of those businesses were still open — about 90 percent continued to operate in some fashion. But he noted that 81.5 percent reported losing revenue due to the COVID-19 crisis. Many had implemented remote working or had limited interactions with customers.

Statewide, more than 30,000 retail employees and more than 28,000 food and beverage service workers had filed unemployment claims as of April 18, according to the N.H. Employment Security figures.

Other highly affected areas included health care, with 18,824 claims between hospitals, residential facilities and ambulatory services; administrative and support services, with 12,001; manufacturing, with about 9,800; education and social services, with more than 6,000 each; and accommodations and recreation, which each had roughly 5,800.


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Federal funds slow to close the funding gap for area hospitals

Area hospitals say they’ve received a portion of the federal funds earmarked for New Hampshire health care facilities, but it will hardly make a dent in covering what they’ve lost since the COVID-19 crisis began.

The CARES Act, signed into law in late March, appropriated $100 billion to support hospitals across the country, with the first $30 billion of that distributed on April 10. Of that $30 billion, $164.5 million was allocated to New Hampshire in the first round of funding, with an additional $16 million announced last week. More funding was announced Sunday by the N.H. congressional delegation.

“Federal stimulus funds are appreciated and helpful yet will not fill the entire gap,” said Matthew Barone, a spokesman for Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, in an email statement. “Currently, Cheshire has received $4 million in federal stimulus funds which covers two weeks of revenue losses — highlighting a significant disparity.”

Barone said that Cheshire Medical Center, part of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system, has been losing $2 million weekly since March 16. One reason for the heavy decline in revenue is because the hospital has postponed all non-urgent procedures and appointments to conserve personal protective equipment and to prioritize the safety of patients.

Barone said these procedures constitute one the hospital’s primary means of making money.

Elective procedures are generally how hospitals earn the bulk of their income, causing serious funding problems for hospitals across the country as they stopped performing them.

However, on Friday, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that hospitals would be able to resume non-urgent but time-sensitive procedures beginning Monday. Cheshire has begun planning on how to safely expand scheduling of time-sensitive elective (non-urgent) procedures, in the interest of better serving our patients but also reestablishing one of our most significant sources of revenue,” he said.

He added that visits to the hospital’s emergency department are down 40 percent. Barone said patients are choosing to avoid visits to the emergency department because they feel doing so may not be safe, even if they legitimately need to seek care. However, Barone emphasized that it is “absolutely critical” that residents know the emergency department is still open and that they can come in if they have an emergency.

Cheshire Medical Center is in a better financial position than some other area health care providers because it is part of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock system, Barone said in the email. He said this has enabled the hospital to reassign staff members within the system to avoid having furloughs or layoffs.

A number of other of other hospitals in the state have announced that they have furloughed or cut the hours of employees, including Lakes Region General Hospital, Franklin Regional Hospital, Catholic Medical Center, and SolutionHealth, which owns Manchester’s Elliot Hospital and Southern N.H. Medical Center in Nashua.

Barone also said Dartmouth-Hitchcock will be able to fill in short-term revenue gaps, but, like the CARES Act funding, it will not cover the entirety of the hospital’s losses.

On Friday, Sununu announced that hospitals would be able to resume non-urgent but time-sensitive procedures beginning on Monday.

Cheshire has begun planning on how to safely expand scheduling of time-sensitive elective (non-urgent) procedures, in the interest of better serving our patients but also reestablishing one of our most significant sources of revenue,” Barone said.

Meanwhile, Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough has also received a portion of the CARES Act money. Like Cheshire Medical, a spokeswoman for Monadnock Community Hospital says the money it has received won’t go very far.

“MCH has received a partial share,” said hospital spokeswoman Laura Gingras last week in an email statement. “That partial payment does not cover one month’s operating losses. We cannot be more specific at this time.”

Gingras did not respond to a follow-up email asking for clarification on how much funding the hospital received.

On Sunday, New Hampshire’s congressional delegation announced the third installment of funding for hospitals through the CARES Act, with another $115.4 million coming to hospitals across the state, according to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that health care is accessible to all who need it, which is especially critical in our rural communities,” Shaheen said in a news release. “Our rural hospitals and providers have been forced to furlough hundreds of workers and are struggling to keep the doors open as we deal with the greatest health crisis of our time.