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Keene proposes using NH toll credit to help fund Winchester St. renovations
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A new proposal backed by Keene officials would draw on federal aid New Hampshire has accrued for roadwork in the state to help pay for a planned overhaul of Winchester Street.

The city is responsible for covering 20 percent of that $9.1 million project, which would involve reconfiguring traffic lanes from the Route 101 roundabout to the Swanzey town line and adding sidewalks and bicycle facilities in that area.

To help reduce that obligation, Keene has asked to purchase so-called toll credits — used to finance certain federally supported infrastructure work — from the N.H. Department of Transportation, according to City Manager Elizabeth Dragon. The credits, which New Hampshire accrues when toll revenue is used to fund repairs to its interstate highways and other federal roads, can be cashed in for relief on transportation-related projects.

That assistance cannot be put toward local infrastructure work without state lawmakers’ approval, a DOT spokeswoman said. But loosening those rules would relieve the strain on municipal coffers, according to At-Large City Councilor Randy Filiault, who introduced the toll-credit proposal.

“It was another one of those issues that I felt the taxpayers of the city of Keene are being shortchanged on,” Filiault told the council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee on Thursday night.

Dragon said she hasn’t heard back from state transportation officials on her recent request to purchase toll credits. FOP Committee members voted 5-0 to recommend the full council pass a measure encouraging New Hampshire to make those credits available for municipal use.

Also on Thursday, the committee advanced plans for the Winchester Street reconstruction project, which is separate from efforts underway to build two new roundabouts on the same road, closer to downtown.

The lower Winchester Street project — the subject of Keene’s toll-credit idea — would also involve installing new traffic signals and replacing the bridge over Ash Swamp Brook, according to plans in the city’s Capital Improvement Program. That section of the road has not been upgraded in more than 30 years, the plans state. The reconstruction project isn’t expected to begin for several years, City Engineer Donald Lussier told city councilors Thursday.

Like the roundabout project, Keene would pay for 20 percent of that work, with the remaining funds coming from the state.

Dragon’s recent request proposes tapping nearly $200 million in federal toll credits New Hampshire has accrued to cover the city’s $1.8 million obligation. Keene would pay $919,000 for those credits, essentially halving its contribution to the lower Winchester Street reconstruction, if approved.

Toll credits aren’t necessarily equivalent to the same amount in federal funding, though, as it can take more in toll credits to satisfy the cash obligation on a project, according to DOT spokeswoman Eileen Meaney.

Meaney said the transportation department does not have authority under New Hampshire law to offer those credits to cities and towns. Any proposal for their distribution locally would need to be approved by state lawmakers on the Capital Budget Overview Committee, she said.

“The Department has never done specifically what Keene is asking and provided toll credits for a reduced cash match,” she told The Sentinel in an email Thursday.

But a new push by rail-trail advocates in New Hampshire, including Keene resident Chuck Redfern, seeks to make the credits available to municipalities.

Redfern, who co-founded the volunteer group Pathways for Keene, told the FOP Committee that cities and towns often struggle to afford improvements to their roads, bridges, sidewalks and bike paths. Although the toll-credit proposal “sounds boring,” he said, it could provide critical relief.

“If the N.H. Department of Transportation allows this to happen, that’s money that local taxpayers are going to save,” he told The Sentinel earlier this week.

Under a provision in the federal infrastructure bill enacted in November, states may now sell their excess toll credits to other states at a discount.

Meaney said little information is available yet on the interstate marketplace for those credits, which U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., championed in Congress. N.H. DOT is waiting for federal guidelines to determine if it will sell excess toll credits to other states, she said.

Redfern argued Thursday night that cities and towns should be able to buy credits, too.

“It seems to me preference ought to be given to New Hampshire local municipalities,” he told city councilors.

Ward 3 Councilor Andrew Madison said at the FOP Committee meeting he didn’t previously know of the federal toll credits. If those credits become available to municipalities, Madison said he’d like to see them boost environmentally friendly transportation routes, such as bike paths.

Filiault, who often criticizes the state for shirking its financial obligations to local communities, said he sees the toll-credit issue as another chance to turn the screws.

“We’ve got to keep making noise and keep demanding the money,” he said.

Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff

Marty Hennum of Keene secures a “Black Lives Matter,” quilt, created by Ashley Chamberlain from the First Congregational Church of Wakefield, with a group of volunteers setting up an exhibit of quilts that were made in the summer of 2020. A total of 10 quilts, which display the final words of George Floyd before Minneapolis police killed him in May 2020, will be on display at the United Church of Christ in Keene on Monday, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff

Kathy Blair of Keene rolls out a quilt that reads, “I can’t breathe,” on a table at the United Church of Christ in Keene. A total of 10 quilts made by artists from various New Hampshire churches, which display the final words of George Floyd before a Minneapolis police officer killed him in May 2020, will be on display at the Central Square church on Monday, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This quilt was created by created by Harriet Ward and helpers from Pilgrim UCC in Brentwood.

Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff

The United Church of Christ in Keene will commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday with an exhibit of the “Sacred Ally Quilts,” an installation of 10 quilts, some of which are seen here, honoring the final words of George Floyd before a Minneapolis police officer killed him in May 2020. The quilts, made by artists from nine different New Hampshire churches, were blessed at the Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge in September 2020.

GOP proposes in-state college tuition for out-of-staters who register to vote

CONCORD — Four years after the Legislature made voting an act of declaring New Hampshire residency for the state’s college students, some lawmakers are seeking to extend a new perk: in-state tuition.

A bill advanced by a group of House Republicans would bar public colleges and universities from charging out-of-state tuition for any students voting in the Granite State.

Under the bill, House Bill 1574, a student would qualify for the reduced rate of tuition simply by registering to vote, even if they moved to the state solely to study and live in a dormitory.

The legislation is the latest in a series of bills in recent years attempting to close any gaps between students who vote in New Hampshire and legal New Hampshire residents. And for Republican supporters, it’s part of a long-term goal to eliminate what they see as two categories of eligible voters. “If a student is voting in New Hampshire, they have a right to in-state tuition,” said Rep. Cody Belanger, an Epping Republican. “They’re considering themselves a resident. They’re domiciled here. And that’s what this bill seeks to do.”

The state’s colleges and universities have pushed back against the bill, arguing it would create a logistical headache to follow and could cost the University System of New Hampshire substantially. An analysis prepared for the House by the university system found that if all out-of-state students registered to vote, the system could lose $139.5 million annually.

And Democrats have warned the bill and others before it could act as a mechanism to force college students who vote to incur expenses such as the requirement to register vehicles in New Hampshire and obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license.

Currently, in order to qualify for in-state tuition, a New Hampshire student must have lived in the state for 12 continuous months directly before attending the school — and must have lived there for a purpose other than attending the university.

The discount for New Hampshire-based students is substantial: At the University of New Hampshire in Durham, a nonresident of the state pays $33,760 annually, while a resident pays $15,520, according to information on the school’s website.

Taking into account room and board, supplies, and transportation costs, out-of-state students and in-state students can ultimately expect to pay $53,968 and $34,978 per year, respectively, the school says.

That difference could amount to a “tremendously difficult revenue situation for the university,” which currently has a 50/50 balance between in-state and out-of-state students, UNH Director of Government Relations Thomas Cronin testified to the House Education Committee Tuesday.

That, in turn, could force the university to raise its in-state tuition and reduce financial aid, Cronin said.

“We would largely need to cut financial aid significantly,” he said. “That is more likely how we would address revenue shortfalls. We would increase (tuition) rates for everybody, because essentially everyone would be paying the same rate, and we would have to reduce financial aid availability.”

And the measure could draw students to the state who wouldn’t have ordinarily considered it, Cronin said.

“Certainly it would be an attractor to out-of-state students,” Cronin said. “I mean, this would be a significantly lower rate than they pay to attend some other out-of-state school, perhaps than their local school.”

The state’s community colleges would be affected as well, said Shannon Reid, director of government affairs for the Community College System of New Hampshire. Only 6 percent of students in the community college system are currently out-of-state, Reid said, but the proposed law could create bureaucratic headaches.

“Running those checks to cross-check our student database against the voter database would have to take place very frequently throughout the year as new cohorts of students register and pay tuition,” Reid said.

Supporters of the bill, like Belanger, say the potential financial impact is outweighed by what he said was the fairness of the act.

“From campuses that seek to offer fairness to all students, it doesn’t seem pretty fair that they’re going to let them vote, help them vote, help them register to vote, but then also charge them out-of-state tuition,” he said.

The bill has drummed up longstanding debates over whether college students should vote without declaring residency. For decades, college students were able to vote in the state by declaring their “domicile” in the state; a 2017 Republican-backed law, House Bill 1264, removed that distinction by making domicile for voting purposes equivalent to residency. The state Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to that law by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the state Democratic Party in May 2020.

Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, argued that college students in the state should be able to vote without incurring residency requirements — and without accruing in-state tuition benefits.

“Not every state has (student voting laws), but I don’t see any reason why somebody who moved to the state because they’re attending school deserves to have fewer rights than somebody who moves there for whatever other reason,” he said.

From left, Mike Blair of Keene, Dianne Patenaude of Spofford, and Becky Barrett of Surry adjust the quilt that reads “I can’t breathe,” while the group of volunteers puts together an exhibit of quilts made in various churches throughout New Hampshire. The quilts, which display the final words of George Floyd before a Minneapolis police officer killed him in May 2020, will be on display at the United Church of Christ in Keene on Monday, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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New Hampshire COVID numbers hit all-time highs

COVID-19 indicators for New Hampshire have risen sharply in the last week, hitting all-time highs in terms of the number of new cases and hospitalizations.

According to data from the state’s official COVID-response dashboard, New Hampshire averaged 2,610 new cases per day for the week ending Tuesday, up 37 percent from a week earlier. The seven-day average for the share of antigen and PCR tests coming back positive was 21.4 percent, up slightly from 20.6 a week ago.

A total of 554 people were in hospitals with the disease as of Wednesday, including 432 people with active infections and 122 who are no longer infectious but still need critical care. (This last type of patient is referred to in N.H. Hospital Association data reports as “COVID-recovering.”) The total number of hospitalizations is up from 503 a week ago.

“In recent weeks, the number of new cases and hospitalizations has surged across our state, and we continue to operate at or near capacity as a result,” says Dr. Tom Wold, chief medical officer at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.

At Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, hospitalizations have dipped slightly, but the influx of COVID-19 inpatients remains difficult to manage, President and CEO Dr. Don Caruso said. According to the latest data available, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate had 22 COVID-19 inpatients as of Tuesday, down from the hospital’s all-time high of 29 at the end of last week. Six of those inpatients Tuesday were in the ICU — half of last week’s total — with five of them on ventilators.

The statewide surge is hurting hospitals at two levels, doctors say, both increasing the burdens on their staff and reducing the number of staff available to meet the community’s needs.

“We are experiencing a ‘twin-demic’ of increased cases of COVID-19 in the community and frontline health-care workers being placed out of work because of COVID-19,” says Dr. Jose Mercado, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s COVID response leader.

As of Wednesday, there were 8,106 health-care workers with active infections, including 103 requiring hospitalization.

“The entire system is stretched thin,” says Dr. Tim Scherer, chief medical officer for Southern N.H. Medical Center. “We are strained in all aspects of how we provide care to the community and can use help ranging from doctors and nurses to door screeners and folks to answer phones.”

Dr. Martha Wassell, director of infection prevention at Dover’s Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, says that even though some of her colleagues now act as pinch hitters, filling staffing gaps wherever safe and appropriate, the burdens are still too great.

“Despite this special labor pool,” she says, “some departments have been forced to reduce or modify hours of service.”

The surge in cases is largely driven by the lightning-fast spread of the omicron variant, which in just a week has risen to become the state’s dominant strain.

Scherer has seen this at his own hospital, where the share of omicron cases has risen from 10 percent to 80 percent in just a week.

“This is significant as some of our treatments for COVID-19 are not as effective for the omicron variant,” he said. “We are adjusting our clinical approaches based on this new incidence.”

The new dominance of omicron has also thrown a wrench into the state’s plans to use FEMA monoclonal antibody teams to fight the winter surge.

“Unfortunately, omicron is the dominant strain here,” Gov. Chris Sununu said on Wednesday, and “omicron is resistant to the vast majority of the monoclonal antibodies that we’ve traditionally been using.”

This means that the state is now looking for new ways to use the FEMA teams that arrived in the state earlier this month.

“We’re not just going to send the teams back, because we need an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Sununu said. “We are going to ask our federal partners to allow us to reutilize these individuals at vaccine sites and other means within the health-care system so that we don’t lose the ability to fight the COVID pandemic.”

The latest surge has pushed daily case numbers to all-time highs, including 3,344 new confirmed cases reported on Jan. 8. This is nearly triple the high from the peak of the first wave. The seven-day moving average for new daily cases in New Hampshire had bottomed out at just 16 at the end of June but has quickly risen since then. After dropping slightly in mid-December, the state is now averaging roughly 1,800 more cases per day than it was at the height of the first wave in December 2020.

New Hampshire’s per-capita case count of 224 per 100,000 has doubled since last week, but surges around the country mean that the state’s numbers are still below the national average, which is 235. The states with the highest numbers are still Rhode Island and New York at 505 and 363, respectively.

Like all New Hampshire counties, Cheshire is still seeing substantial levels of community transmission, the highest of three tiers designated by the state health department. As of the state’s data update on Wednesday, Cheshire County had a 14-day average of nearly 1,642 new cases a day per 100,000 people, a 52 percent increase over last week.

The local test positivity rate over the previous seven days stood at 13.6 percent, down two percentage points from a week ago, according to the state health department. But Cheshire Medical Center again broke its own record for percent positivity on tests performed at the hospital, with a rate of 27.6 percent during the week ending Jan. 6, compared to 23.5 percent the week before.

An average of between nine and 10 Granite Staters were dying due to COVID each day as of Wednesday. This is still less than the peak of 11.7 deaths per day during the first wave.

As of Thursday, there were 22,750 active COVID cases diagnosed in New Hampshire. The state had tallied 233,508 confirmed cases and 2,051 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began.

Vaccination rates continue to rise, though state and federal vaccination data for New Hampshire remain out of sync. Data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services show that 63 percent of Granite Staters have received at least one dose, while the number from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is much higher, at 95 percent. The difference between DHHS and the CDC in terms of total doses administered is roughly 721,000.

The CDC continues to recommend that anyone 5 and older get vaccinated. For adults, the agency recommends getting one of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna), rather than Johnson & Johnson, but the CDC emphasizes that any vaccine is better than being unvaccinated. Children between the ages of 5 and 17 can get the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine.

Last week, the CDC shortened the waiting period before a booster for everyone who received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which means that people can now receive an mRNA booster shot five months after completing their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series. The booster interval recommendation for people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (two months) or the Moderna vaccine (six months) has not changed.

People can register for a vaccine or for a booster by visiting or calling 211.

Sentinel staff contributed local information to this story.

Supreme Court decision
Supreme Court blocks Biden’s vaccine mandate for the workplace

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked President Joe Biden’s plan to require that most workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing.

But the justices, in a separate decision, upheld a smaller and more targeted regulation that will require workers in hospitals and nursing facilities to be vaccinated. This rule, once put into effect, is expected to cover about 17 million people working in healthcare, the administration said.

In blocking the broader workplace rule, the court’s conservative majority agreed with Republican state attorneys who contended the president had overstepped his authority by requiring workers in companies and agencies with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated or tested regularly. There were exemptions for those who worked outdoors or at home, or had medical or religious objections.

The vote was 6-3. Biden’s rule was based on the Occupational Safety Health Act of 1970, which protects employees from toxins and other dangers in the workplace. The justices said it does not go so far as to authorize mandatory vaccinations.

In an unsigned opinion, the court’s conservatives said “it is telling that OSHA, in its half century of existence, has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind — addressing a threat that is untethered, in any causal sense, from the workplace... Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly. Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category.”

The three liberals dissented. They said the decision “stymies the federal government’s ability to counter the unparalleled threat that COVID—19 poses to our nation’s workers. Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the court displaces the judgments of the government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies.”

However, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined with the court’s three liberals to uphold Biden’s testing requirement for hospitals and nursing homes. That requirement is based on the Medicare and Medicaid Acts, which authorize federal health officials to set standards to protect the health and safety of elderly and sick patients.

Biden said the court’s decision to uphold the requirement for healthcare workers “will save lives: the lives of patients who seek care in medical facilities, as well as the lives of doctors, nurses and others who work there.”

He said he was disappointed in the OSHA ruling, but called on states and businesses to step up and voluntarily institute vaccination requirements to protect workers, customers and the broader community. The ruling “does not stop me from using my voice as president to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy.”

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said they would have upheld both regulations.

The outcome is not a surprise because of the makeup the court. The conservative majority is highly skeptical of new and far-reaching federal regulations.

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the states have broad authority to impose rules to cope with COVID-19. He said the “only question [in the OSHA case] is whether an administrative agency in Washington, one charged with overseeing workplace safety, may mandate the vaccination or regular testing of 84 million people. Or whether, as 27 States before us submit, that work belongs to state and local governments across the country and the people’s elected representatives in Congress.”

The National Federation of Independent Business had joined Republican states in challenging the workplace rule, and Karen Harned, executive director of its legal center, called the decision “a welcome relief for America’s small businesses, who are still trying to get their business back on track since the beginning of the pandemic.”

The businesses and states told the court it would cost businesses billions of dollars to comply with the vaccinate-or-test rule, and they predicted it would “cause hundreds of thousands of employees to leave their jobs.”

The administration, however, said the rule, if enforced, would save more than 6,500 lives and prevent hundreds of thousands from being hospitalized.

Lawrence Gostin, the faculty director of health law project at the Georgetown Law School, said the OSHA decision is “a major setback to President Biden’s COVID strategy and will prolong the pandemic in the United States. The OSHA employer mandate was the single most effective policy for getting people vaccinated. Without a wide-reaching federal mandate, it’s unlikely the national vaccination rate of just over 60 percent will improve.”

Biden’s vaccine rules were announced in November and were due to take effect this month, but they were put on hold while the legal challenges went forward.

The lower courts had been split.

The Ohio-based 6th Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, cleared the way for the workplace rule to take effect. Judges in Missouri, Louisiana and Texas had blocked the narrower rule that applied to hospitals and nursing facilities.

Lawyers on both sides filed emergency appeals in the Supreme Court asking the justices to decide quickly and issue orders that allowed or blocked the rules from going into effect.