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Gov. Sununu announces statewide mask mandate
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With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, New Hampshire now has a statewide mask mandate.

During a news conference Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that New Hampshire would be under a face-covering requirement effective Friday morning and continuing through Jan. 15. This makes New Hampshire the 37th state to issue such a mandate and the last state in New England to do so.

“This mandate will apply to all indoor public spaces, and outdoors as well, when social distancing cannot be maintained,” Sununu said during Thursday’s news conference. He added that the state has long encouraged mask-wearing, while not mandating it, saying “it works, the data shows that, it has been proven.”

The mandate applies to people over the age of 5, according to a news release from the governor’s office. Masks are required in all public spaces, including any part of private or public property that is open to members of the general public, such as lobbies, waiting areas, outside plazas or patios, restaurants, retail businesses, streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches and more.

The order does not apply in some situations, including in schools, where Sununu noted that mask policies are already in place and working well; for people with a medical condition that makes it difficult or impossible to wear a mask; or for those involved in strenuous physical activity. And the order doesn’t call for fines for those who violate it. The full text, including a complete list of exceptions, can be found online at https://bit.ly/35LpZEm.

Many elected officials and others in New Hampshire have been calling for a statewide mask mandate since early in the pandemic, which really took off in New Hampshire in March. Sununu said Thursday that a mandate has always been on the table, but that he wanted to ensure the decision was data-driven.

“In this current surge, this is now really a statewide issue more than ever before,” Sununu said. “Not just confined to the highest levels within the southern tiers of Rockingham and Hillsborough counties as we saw in the first wave of this virus back in the spring.”

Several New Hampshire communities, including Keene, have passed mask requirements at the local level. The issue has been highly divisive in recent months, with many arguing that the requirement is in the best interest of preserving public health, while others have expressed concerns that the mandates violate individual liberties.

As is the case nationally, COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire have been on the rise over the past several weeks. On Thursday, the state announced 529 new cases, as well as two new deaths, and noted that the hospitalization numbers for COVID-19 are now double what they were two weeks ago. As of Thursday morning, 98 people were in hospitals for the virus, compared to 44 as of Nov. 5, according to state health department data.

Rollout plans for a vaccine

In other news, Beth Daly, chief of the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, discussed the state’s plan to roll out vaccines when they become available. To date, there are two vaccines that have proven to be around 95 percent effective, with several others still in development.

Daly said the state has been working on a pandemic vaccine distribution plan for at least 20 years, with plans for a COVID-specific vaccine distribution in development since the spring. She said there will be two phases, and the first will focus on high-risk state residents, such as those in congregate living facilities, as well as medical professionals and first responders.

She said the general public, which will have access to the vaccine in the second phase, can hope to do so by the spring of 2021.

“Our goal is to make it easy to receive this vaccine,” she said. “As such, these vaccines will be administered in a variety of different settings across the state, including our hospitals, health care provider offices, through pharmacies and clinics.”

Fog drapes a veil over Woodland Cemetery in Keene on a recent morning. A fairly benign November weekend is in store weather-wise, with partly sunny skies and highs in the low 50s Saturday before dropping into the 40s with clouds on Sunday.

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Hancock selectboard:
Probe says town of Hancock had cause to cut ties with police chief

HANCOCK — A Hancock Selectboard investigation into Police Chief Andrew Wood this summer found cause for the town to terminate the chief for allegedly violating several town, state and police department standards, according to documents obtained by the Ledger-Transcript.

Wood submitted his resignation to the town in September, saying “the events involving law enforcement throughout this country” led him to determine that he’d completed “all of the tasks that I set out to accomplish in Hancock,” according to a Facebook post on Sept. 28.

But the selectboard’s investigation, which was presented to Wood in an August letter, alleged that they had cause to terminate Wood for consistently submitting “inaccurate and false” timecards and employing an uncertified full-time officer who had resigned from a different department after he was accused of sexually harassing a fellow police officer.

Wood served as police chief in Hancock for 12 years and also served as the officer in charge of the Richmond Police Department until it was dissolved in 2019. The Hancock Selectboard’s investigation and the Ledger-Transcript’s independent review of timecards from both departments between 2017 and 2019 found multiple instances in which Wood logged overlapping hours for the two towns on his timecards.

“A review of your timesheets from the Towns of Hancock and Richmond, as well as dispatch logs, demonstrates a pattern of inaccurate, and false timesheet entries. It was not a one-time occurrence or lapse in judgment,” the town’s letter reads.

The selectboard used nine instances of timecard discrepancies between Jan. 1, 2017, and Aug. 29, 2017, as examples in their letter. On Jan. 1, 2017, Wood’s hours are listed on the Hancock Dispatch records from 11:25 a.m. to 3:21 p.m., on the Hancock timesheets from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on the Richmond timesheets from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wood did not offer an explanation for that day’s discrepancy, the board said, nor for four other instances they cited.

The Ledger-Transcript found 169 instances of overlapping hours reported on timecards between the two agencies from Jan. 1, 2017, to June 27, 2019, Wood’s last day working for Richmond. In that time, there were 327.25 hours that Wood reported working for Richmond and being on duty in Hancock at the same time, and an additional 129.25 hours that Wood reported working for Richmond and being on call in Hancock at the same time.

Wood lives in Fitzwilliam, which is adjacent to Richmond and about 40 minutes from the Hancock Police Department. He started working for Richmond in 1998. Richmond Selectboard member Andrew Wallace said their board had not been aware of Wood’s timecard discrepancies, nor had they heard from the town of Hancock as of Nov. 12. Voters opted to dissolve the Richmond Police Department in 2019 for financial reasons, he said.

“We were getting a much better deal with the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

The Hancock Selectboard found cause for termination in the recurring discrepancies between the two town departments and police dispatch logs from Hancock, and Wood’s inability to adequately explain them, according to their August letter.

“Claiming you worked from the Town of Hancock when you were in fact not working for the Town is a serious transgression that took advantage of the Town and its taxpayers, and had a detrimental effect on the management and fiscal responsibility of the Town,” the letter reads.

The town also found fault with Wood’s hiring of Officer Nathan Jette, who was brought on as a full-time officer in 2018.

According to the town’s investigation, Jette resigned from the Winchester Police Department in 2010 after allegedly sexually harassing a female police officer who he was training. He had not worked as a police officer for eight years and was no longer certified as a police officer when he was hired to work in Hancock.

In their August letter, the board accused Wood of failing to thoroughly investigate Jette’s background after Jette approached him for a job at the Hancock Police Department in August 2018. Jette had worked for the Richmond Police Department for two years with Wood, leaving that department in August 2010. According to the investigation, Wood never interviewed any Winchester officials who overlapped with Jette’s time at the agency, even after Jette told Wood there had been a disciplinary issue in Winchester. Wood said he only learned of the alleged sexual harassment incident from a Police Standards and Training rep months after hiring Jette, who worked alone in the Hancock department despite lacking a valid certification — a violation of N.H. Police Standards and Training Council regulations.

Wood said Jette resigned after speaking to him on April 5, 2019, the day after Wood saw the file on the 2010 sexual harassment investigation. The Police Standards and Training Council unanimously agreed that the 2010 incident made Jette unworthy of police officer certification at an eligibility hearing in May 2019.

“...it is a most egregious violation of trust and integrity of this office; and he should not be considered as a police officer in the future,” the PTSC said in a record of the hearing. Selectboard members told Wood his lack of oversight in hiring Jette and managing him once employed represented a fireable offense.

In an undated letter responding to the selectboard’s claims, Wood wrote that he believed the town’s timekeeping policy applied to non-salaried employees. He defended some of his timecard discrepancies, telling Hancock officials that Richmond’s timecard policy had him recording a minimum of four hours per court visit regardless of actual time spent at court, and a minimum of one hour per phone call regardless of the length of the call. He also cited overlapping hours due to remote work for Richmond and overlaps in training between the two departments. “Given the passage of time, it is certainly difficult to gie [sic] precise details of dates and shifts,” he wrote. “I have never worked less than my 40 hours,” he wrote, and that he worked other unrecorded hours and has never had State Police cover a police shift.

With regards to Jette, Wood said he requested information from Police Standards and Training and Jette’s personnel file from Winchester, and didn’t find anything that would disqualify the candidate.

“We see this all the time. From large to small agencies to Federal and State agencies, we find things out after hiring someone that they do not belong in this profession for one reason or another,” he wrote. He said that Major David Parenteau of the PSTC found him at fault for accepting an older personal history statement from Jette rather than a current one. The Ledger-Transcript requested Jette’s personnel file from Winchester, but did not receive any information by press time.

“I can’t really get into … what he knew and when he knew it,” until the PSTC concludes their involvement in the situation, Parenteau said when the Ledger-Transcript asked him whether it was possible Wood hadn’t had access to the allegations against Jette earlier. Parenteau said that the PSTC is still in communication with the town about the matter. Whenever an officer resigns in lieu of dismissal, the PSTC collects information and keeps it on file, he said. “If we get a notification that somebody hired this individual, we bring that old case forward” at that point, he said.

If an uncertified officer is found to be working alone, without a certified officer physically present at all times, the PSTC could place sanctions on both that officer and their supervisor, Parenteau said. When asked what consequences an officer could face for logging hours in two towns simultaneously, Parenteau stressed that the PSTC wasn’t an investigative agency, and the involved towns would first need to determine what kind of a violation occurred, whether contractual, or criminal, or theft, he said, at which point they could notify the PSTC so they could investigate further and conduct an eligibility hearing.

When asked why the board did not fire Wood outright, opting instead to draw up a separation agreement, Town Administrator Jonathan Coyne said that they worked up a settlement. He said he didn’t recall how they initially discovered Wood’s alleged transgressions, just that it was “brought to their attention.” Selectboard Chair Laurie Bryan did not respond to a request for comment.

The separation agreement that Wood signed dictates the terms under which he would work before his employment ends on Dec. 31. “This separation agreement … settles a disputed claim, is offered to buy peace and shall not in any way be construed as an admission by the town that it has acted wrongfully with respect to Mr. Wood,” it reads.

Wood did not respond to a request for comment. A term of the separation agreement prevents him from publicly disclosing any information concerning his claims or disagreements with the town, or the agreement itself.

Wood announced his resignation, effective Dec. 31 of this year, on the evening of Sept. 28, the day the selectboard had scheduled to meet with him to discuss their allegations. Hancock budgeted $77,314 for Wood’s salary in 2020. His hourly rate in Richmond was $28.50 an hour in 2019.

NH’s nursing homes are among the hardest hit in U.S., but received little federal aid

Nursing homes have accounted for nearly 82 percent of New Hampshire’s total COVID-19 deaths, the highest rate in the county. Yet, in the most recent round of funding, they have received the third-lowest amount of funding per home, only behind Maine and Vermont.

The most recent round of nursing home grants, announced in late October, were distributed to nursing homes that kept “new COVID-19 infection and mortality rates among residents lower than the communities they serve.” The distribution strategy was intended to incentivize nursing homes to stay vigilant with infection control by rewarding those who keep their infection rate lower than that of their county. However, in states with low rates of community transmission, like New Hampshire, nursing homes struggled to keep their numbers under infection rates that were already low — between August and September, the window of time HHS used to make their allocations, some counties in the state had just a handful of positive cases.

This allocation strategy, New Hampshire’s congressional delegation argued, inherently disadvantages states with overall low rates of COVID-19 in the community. Nationally, nursing homes received an average of $24,777 from the most recent round of funding. New Hampshire homes received an average of $4,909, about five times lower.

The high rate of nursing home deaths in New Hampshire is not a result of poor infection control, said Brendan Williams, the president of the New Hampshire Health Care Association. The state’s nursing homes have one of the lowest rates of infection-related deficiencies, according to inspection reports from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.“Nobody has invited this virus into their facility,” he said. “It is not a function of carelessness that this virus gets in.”

Rather, New Hampshire nursing homes are getting less funding because the state has handled the pandemic well, Williams said. Yes, long-term care facilities were doing badly compared to the rest of the state but New Hampshire was doing well compared to the rest of the country, he said.

“Why should we be punished because we’re not seeing a high level of community transmission?” Williams asked. “Shouldn’t that be a good thing?”

Even if outbreaks were a result of a lapse of infection control, Williams isn’t sure withholding funding would fix the problem — a lack of money to hire staff can often exacerbate problems with infection control.

Jeanne Shaheen, Maggie Hassan, Annie Kuster, and Chris Pappas sent a joint letter to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday, asking them to reconsider how funds are distributed. They suggested factors, such as the share of the state’s total COVID-19 deaths and cases attributable to nursing facility residents and staff, be considered in future rounds of funding.

In the meantime, long term care facilities across the state are struggling. Eight homes are in the throes of severe outbreaks. Some facilities are so desperate for staff, they’ve resorted to Facebook to ask community members to volunteer.

“The administration needs to distribute federal funding in a way that matches the full scope of the crisis we’re seeing in our communities,” Shaheen said. “The latest round of awards is woefully insufficient and fails to deliver necessary relief at a time when our facilities need help the most.”

Over half of Americans still plan Thanksgiving travel amid COVID concerns, report says

As health officials warn of the risks of Thanksgiving travel, more than half of Americans still plan to venture away from home, according to a new survey.

The website Tripadvisor says 56 percent of people intend to take trips for the holiday this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic, a report shows.

“The way in which consumers travel, however, will look very different from past years,” Christopher Hsi, consumer market research lead analyst for Tripadvisor, said in a news release. “This year, we can expect shorter trips with smaller groups of people for more intimate, close knit gatherings.”

Still, with Thanksgiving a week away, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to skip holiday travel this year.

The recommendation released Thursday by the CDC was a break from earlier messaging in which U.S. officials have largely declined to issue firm guidance for holiday gatherings, leaving it to American families to decide for themselves whether to risk infection at large dinners with the coronavirus pandemic still raging. The survey shows the number of U.S. residents planning to go on Thanksgiving trips is down 14 percent compared to last year, and travelers are expected to steer clear of big cities, results show. Also, road tripping is the most popular option, with about three-fourths of people in the survey saying they plan to get to their destinations by car.

AAA also expects most travelers to take road trips, saying the mode of transportation allows families to make flexible plans. “The wait-and-see travel trend continues to impact final travel decisions, especially for the Thanksgiving holiday,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said last week in a news release.

The travel company estimated in mid-October that 50 million people would pack their bags this Thanksgiving, a 10 percent drop from last year. But there could be even fewer travelers as coronavirus cases climb and officials share travel warnings and restrictions, according to AAA.

For those who decide to travel, it’s best to wait at least 14 days after potential exposure to the coronavirus, the CDC says. While on the trip, experts recommend everyone wash their hands, practice social distancing and wear a face mask at transit centers. For car rides, AAA suggests bringing food to avoid stops.

To come up with its travel predictions, AAA says it teamed up with IHS Markit to study coronavirus-related rules, travel prices, jobs and other factors.

For its survey, Tripadvisor says it collected responses from roughly 400 people between Oct. 16-20.