For the second straight year, the COVID-19 pandemic touched all aspects of life in the Monadnock Region, and beyond.
So, like last year, The Sentinel news staff chose the public health crisis, and its wide-ranging effects, the top local news story of 2021.
The year began with the rollout of the first coronavirus vaccines, which gradually made their way to the general public through a collaborative effort involving federal, state and local officials and volunteers. Throughout the spring and summer, life in southwestern New Hampshire regained some feeling of normalcy.
Schools transitioned from remote and hybrid models back to fully in-person classes. Workplaces reopened, and public events and festivals returned to area communities. The Keene SwampBats came back to town, too, and fans could once again fill the stands at local high school and college sporting events.
As the seasons changed, though, new strains of the coronavirus emerged. The more-contagious delta variant has driven a surge of infections, pushing case levels to record highs and overwhelming local hospitals. It remains to be seen how, or if, the omicron variant will affect the area. During 2021, at least 65 Cheshire County residents have died of the viral respiratory illness, making up the vast majority of local coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began, according to the state health department/
And while the global pandemic has dominated life in 2021, the year had plenty of news beyond COVID-19. From a summer of extreme weather to significant changes in local government, education and criminal justice, here are The Sentinel’s picks for the top 10 stories of 2021, in no particular order:
COVID-19 vaccine rollout
2021 started with a glimmer of hope, as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began, starting with health care workers and making its way to the public. The state’s initiative had a few hiccups along the way, such as a jammed phone line and glitches with its website as an influx of people tried to sign up for their shot. Eventually, Granite Staters got into a rhythm, with vaccination rates steadily increasing statewide as local hospitals, public health networks and the N.H. National Guard pitched in with drive-thru style inoculation clinics. This summer, rates stalled, and have remained at about 60 percent since, as public health officials continue to urge people to get their shot. Later in the year, vaccines for children and teens also were approved, and those 16 and older became eligible for booster shots.
Cryptocurrency crimes alleged
The pre-dawn silence on Leverett Street in Keene was shattered March 16, when FBI agents armed with long guns took multiple residents into custody on federal cryptocurrency charges. In all, six people — including three from Keene and one from Alstead — were charged with committing wire fraud and money-laundering violations while they ran a business that prosecutors said since 2016 had let customers convert more than $10 million into Bitcoin. Federal prosecutors said “hordes of cybercriminals,” hoping to avoid detection by regulators, used the crypto exchange because it didn’t collect basic information about clients, as required by law.
Ian Freeman, a libertarian activist from Keene, faces the most serious charge of operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. A trial for the six defendants, all of whom have pleaded not guilty, is scheduled for November 2022.
COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the Monadnock Region were hit hard by the pandemic, with several severe outbreaks reported throughout the year. These facilities are particularly vulnerable, given the close living quarters and the elderly populations at higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19.
One of the largest outbreaks occurred at Keene Center, when 62 residents and 17 employees were infected between late December 2020 and early February. Twelve residents’ deaths were also linked to the outbreak.
Alpine Healthcare Center in Keene also had two separate, large outbreaks. The first started in late February, infecting 19 residents and 10 employees. From August to early October, Alpine had another outbreak, with 62 residents and 23 staff members testing positive for the viral disease, and six deaths reported.
Community power plans’ emergence
In May, Keene became the first New Hampshire municipality to adopt a community power program since the state began allowing them in 2019. The program allows the city to purchase electricity on behalf of individual consumers, with options for receiving up to all of their power from renewable sources. Keene officials touted the community power program as a key to the city’s sweeping energy plan, under which it aims to rely entirely on renewable energy for electricity by 2030 and for thermal and transportation energy by 2050.
Several other Monadnock Region communities followed suit, with Harrisville and Walpole joining a statewide community power program that also includes Cheshire County. Meanwhile, Dublin, Swanzey and Marlborough are eyeing their own community power proposals, which can get more energy from renewable sources and lower costs to consumers. The approved plans have not yet taken effect, however, since the state’s Public Utilities Commission is still working on its rules for community power programs.
‘Divisive concepts’ law takes effect
A budget bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in June included a new section of law called “Prohibition on Teaching Discrimination,” which forbids, among other things, public school students from being taught that certain people are inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously. Penalties for violation include disciplinary sanctions by the state Board of Education.
Some teachers said the law could make it hard to openly discuss difficult topics like racism and sexism, and the legislation drew criticism from local groups including the Keene Board of Education. The measure grew out of a previous proposal, which was tabled in the House, to prevent dissemination of “divisive concepts.” By year’s end, two lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire, alleging the statute is unconstitutionally vague.
Summer storms and their aftermath
After what began as a summer of drought, two storms hit the Monadnock Region in July, leaving extensive destruction in their wake. Roads washed away, culverts were destroyed, crops flooded, basements filled with water, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency verified millions of dollars in damages.
Starting July 17, a slow-moving storm dumped rain for three days. Then, less than two weeks later, a second storm arrived, sweeping through the area July 29 and 30 and causing additional damage and undoing repair work that had been underway.
The effects of the storms have been felt long after the clouds lifted. In response to the damages, the federal government issued a major disaster declaration, which made funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency available to municipalities, state agencies and some nonprofits. As of November, more than 20 local communities had applied for those funds. Earlier this week, FEMA also extended its disaster declaration to cover storm damage that occurred on Aug. 1 and 2.
Peterborough falls victim to cyber fraud
In August, Peterborough officials announced that $2.3 million in taxpayer money was stolen. Those behind the fraud posed as town contractors and persuaded municipal finance officials by email to send electronic vendor payments intended for the ConVal school district and contractors working on the town’s Main Street bridge project to bank accounts set up by the scammers.
Nobody has been caught, but the Secret Service recovered nearly $600,000 of the money and the town received another $125,000 in an insurance settlement, reducing the overall loss to about $1.5 million. Town employees received training to reinforce policies requiring verification whenever changes are requested in the routing of vendor payments.
Keene State College’s latest cuts
As part of a multiyear effort to adjust to a smaller student body, Keene State College saw another round of faculty and staff buyouts and layoffs this year, along with the elimination of several academic programs. The cuts came as part of the college’s “realignment” effort, which began in 2018 to address a shrinking student body that was further reduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, and currently stands at about 3,100.
The college cut six academic programs including majors in geography, American studies, physics and women and gender studies, as well as minors in information studies and art history. Students who were already enrolled in these programs are able to complete their degrees.
In total, the college eliminated 25 faculty positions this year, coming on the heels of 88 staff members taking buyouts over the course of the past school year. The reductions helped address a projected $14 million budget gap, which had shrunk to $5.5 million this past semester. The college expects to close the gap altogether next summer, President Melinda Treadwell told The Sentinel in October.
Local sports teams see success in 2021
The 2021 high school sports season saw five local teams earn state championships: Conant and Hinsdale girls basketball, Monadnock baseball, Keene girls cross country and Keene bass fishing.
The Conant girls basketball team beat Fall Mountain in the Division III state title game to earn its second consecutive state title and finish back-to-back undefeated seasons.
Hinsdale was also no stranger to the championship game, as 2021 marked the Pacers’ second Division IV title game appearance in the past three years and its third consecutive Final Four appearance.
The Monadnock baseball team cruised to its first state championship since 2016, beating Somersworth High School, 10-0, in six innings in the Division III championship game over the summer.
The Keene girls cross country team broke a streak of 13 years without a state title, earning its first Division I team title since 2007.
The Keene bass fishing team also earned a state championship. And Keene senior Torin Kindopp won the individual cross country D-I state championship.
The Keene 4x800 relay team placed first at the D-I outdoor track championships, Monadnock’s 4x800 relay team and 4x400 relay team both won state titles at the D-III championships while Monadnock's Delaney Swanson earned a state title in the 3,200-meter race.
The rise of COVID-19 variants
Along with the ongoing pandemic came the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The more contagious strain of the virus — first on state health officials’ radar in late July — quickly increased the area’s case rates, hospitalizations and deaths after those numbers stayed low in the earlier summer months. Local case rates have been surging ever since, with this winter seeing the highest case rates in the state to date.
In turn, local hospitals have become overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, leading to the cancelation of non-urgent procedures and barring of visitors from the facility to free up personnel and beds. Statewide, there have been limited beds available to transfer patients to if needed, and hospitals continue to deal with low staffing numbers.
Keene and Brattleboro officials reimplemented community-wide indoor mask ordinances this winter to try to help with the skyrocketing case rates. Many employers also required staff members to get vaccinated to slow the spread.
By the end of 2021, the new omicron variant was identified in the country, with the first New Hampshire case found in Cheshire County in December. Health experts say this more contagious variant likely will soon be the dominant strain in the U.S.
This article has been changed to add Delaney Swanson's state title.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in a phone call with President Joe Biden late Thursday that any new sanctions on Russia as a result of the Ukraine crisis could lead to “a complete rupture of relations” between Moscow and Washington that their descendants would come to regret, according to Putin’s foreign policy aide.
Putin issued the warning during his second phone call this month with Biden, after the U.S. president reiterated how Russia would face unprecedented and punishing sanctions from Washington and its allies if Putin were to proceed with a new invasion of Ukraine, according to Russian presidential foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov.
Putin told Biden that such actions would be a mistake, “which our descendants will later appreciate as a huge one,” Ushakov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “Many such mistakes have already been made over the past 30 years. Therefore, it is advisable not to make such mistakes in this situation.”
The call, which took place at Putin’s request and lasted 50 minutes, came as the Kremlin ratchets up pressure for a sweeping new European security deal after massing troops near the border of Ukraine and firing a test salvo of hypersonic weapons last week to reinforce its demands.
Putin has demanded swift acceptance of a proposed security deal that would bar Ukraine from ever joining NATO and rule out any other eastward expansion by the U.S.-led military alliance. The Russian leader has accused Western nations of encroaching on Russia’s borders with military exercises in the Black Sea region and turning Ukraine into a beachhead for anti-Russia action.
Russian officials see a time frame of just weeks for Biden to agree to demands that NATO has long refused, including effectively allowing Russia to veto the security decisions of Ukraine and other nations in the region. The White House has rejected any such bans on NATO membership out of hand, saying all sovereign nations should retain the right to make decisions about their own security.
A senior Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, told reporters after the call Thursday that Putin was looking to set the “tenor and tone” for upcoming in-person talks between Washington and Moscow that are slated to take place in early January in three different settings.
The United States and Russia are scheduled to hold bilateral talks in Geneva on Jan. 9 and 10, the senior official said. Those will be followed by talks at the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12 and negotiations at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes Ukraine, on Jan. 13, the official added.
“Both leaders acknowledged that there were likely to be areas where we could make meaningful progress, as well as areas where agreements may be impossible, and that the upcoming talks would determine more precisely the contours of each of those categories,” the senior Biden administration official said.
Biden, who took the call from Wilmington, Del., where he and first lady Jill Biden are expected to ring in the new year, also told Putin that the United States wouldn’t be discussing the security of its European allies and partners without them at the table, and Putin said he understood, according to the administration official.
Biden and Putin will not attend any of the meetings set for January but will be represented by their respective top diplomats and defense officials.
The talks come amid significant disagreement about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine.
Some analysts say Russia’s insistence that a complex security deal be negotiated in such a short time and include pledges Putin knows Washington won’t make could be a pretext for military action. Others believe Putin has created the threat of a new Ukraine war simply to secure concessions from the United States and its allies in upcoming talks.
During the call, the Russian president told Biden that Russia wanted security guarantees and stressed that “the main thing we need is a result” from the upcoming talks, Ushakov said.
“The U.S. president, in principle, agreed with this point of view and reacted quite logically and quite seriously,” Ushakov said. Biden told Putin that Russia and the United States “could and should play a key role in efforts to ensure peace and security both in Europe and elsewhere in the world,” he said.
“It is important that the American side demonstrated a desire to understand the logic and essence of Russian concerns,” Ushakov added, describing the call as constructive and noting that Biden pledged to continue bilateral talks with Putin.
In their Dec. 7 videoconference, Biden warned Putin of tough new sanctions if Russia escalates action against Ukraine, a threat the Kremlin has shrugged off, saying it is accustomed to Western sanctions.
Putin last week made it clear he would not wait long for the written security guarantees he demands. He said he was not interested in negotiations, only results.
“It is you who must give us guarantees, and you must do it immediately, right now,” he told a Western journalist last week at his annual news conference, when asked whether he would rule out invading Ukraine. “It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep.”
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said last week that the United States had its own list of security concerns about Russian actions to bring to the January talks.
An unclassified U.S. intelligence analysis revealed by The Washington Post this month found that Russia was preparing to move as many as 175,000 troops in preparation for an invasion, though the White House has said Putin has not made a decision yet. U.S. officials and military analysts have predicted that if Putin proceeds, the offensive could take place in late January or February.
Putin blames Western aggression for the rising military tension over Ukraine and last week threatened to respond with “military-technical measures” if his security demands were not met, without indicating what the measures would be.
On Sunday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explicitly linked Russia’s test firing of Tsirkon hypersonic missiles on Christmas Eve with Moscow’s demands for security guarantees, saying Russia hoped that its demands would “thus become more compelling.”
Putin, who has often boasted that Russia leads the world in hypersonic missile technology, said the first Tsirkon missile salvo test was “successful, impeccable.” He called it “a major event in the life of our country and a significant step in raising Russia’s security.”
COVID-19 indicators for New Hampshire have fallen for the past three weeks, but the number of new cases per day is still higher than the peak from the first wave at the end of 2020.
According to data from the state’s COVID response dashboard, New Hampshire averaged 992 new cases per day for the week ending Wednesday, down 14 percent from a week earlier. The seven-day average share of antigen (rapid) and PCR tests coming back positive was 15.2 percent, up from 13.2 percent a week ago. There were 384 people hospitalized for the disease as of Wednesday, down slightly from 399 the previous week.
“The total number of inpatient admissions, although significant and abnormally high, have leveled in the last few days,” said Dr. Martha Wassell, director of infection prevention at Dover’s Wentworth-Douglass Hospital. “The Thanksgiving holiday prompted the recent surge, so it’s not unexpected to see a plateau or decrease in cases a few weeks after the holiday gatherings.”
At Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, though, coronavirus-related hospitalizations continue to rise. The Dartmouth-Hitchcock affiliate reported 27 COVID-19 inpatients, with nine requiring ventilation, as of Tuesday, the latest data available from the hospital. That marks Cheshire Medical’s highest COVID-19 inpatient volume to date, leading the hospital to convert several standard rooms to those capable of providing intensive care.
Dr. Justin Kim, regional hospital epidemiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said that most of the increase is still driven by transmission among the unvaccinated. He also noted that the delta variant is still far more prevalent in the region than the more-infectious omicron.
The seven-day moving average for new daily cases in New Hampshire had fallen in the first half of the year, bottoming out at just 16 at the end of June, but has quickly risen since then. That number peaked at 1,408 on Dec. 8. The average has fallen over the past three weeks, but the state is still averaging roughly 100 cases per day more than it was at the height of the first wave in December 2020.
New Hampshire’s per capita case count of 84 per 100,000 has dropped below the national average, which is 91. The states with the highest numbers are now New York and New Jersey, at 215 and 196, respectively.
Like all N.H. counties, Cheshire is still seeing substantial levels of community transmission, the highest of three tiers designated by the state health department. As of Wednesday, the latest available data, Cheshire County had a 14-day average of nearly 1,236 new cases per 100,000 people, down slightly from last week. The local test positivity rate over the previous seven days stood at 13.6 percent, up about three percentage points from a week ago, according to the state health department.
A pair of local towns, Winchester and Swanzey, are among the top five municipalities in the state with the most active infections, when adjusted for population. As of Wednesday, Winchester had 34 active cases, or 800 per 100,000 population, while Swanzey had 56 infections, or 775 per 100,000, according to the state health department. Only Windham, Wakefield and Bristol had higher proportional case counts.
Wassell cautioned that the state’s data on positive cases may be getting less accurate because more people are using home tests, but may not be reporting positive results.
“Additional home COVID-19 test availability is useful in reducing transmission, as it can help drive personal decisions related to travel or congregation,” she said, but it’s important for people to still report their results to their healthcare provider or the state.
As case counts in New Hampshire have dropped, the strain on hospitals has also lessened slightly. Even though the number of daily hospitalizations has more than doubled in the past five weeks, up from 186 on Nov. 2, more staffed adult ICU beds have become available in the past week: 8.5 percent of the state’s supply was still available as of mid-week, up from 6.7 percent a week ago.
Even though more beds are available overall, said Dr. Holly Mintz, chief medical officer of ambulatory care services at Manchester’s Elliot Hospital, these resources are still being overdrawn in some areas.
“Hospitalizations are still exceeding capacity, especially in the intensive care units,” she said. “There continues to be a shortage of available beds, causing many patients to have long waits in the emergency department awaiting a bed to become available.”
In addition to the count of patients with active infections, the New Hampshire Hospital Association now also reports the number of COVID-recovering patients. These are people who are no longer contagious but who remain in the hospital receiving inpatient care as a result of lingering COVID symptoms. There were 134 such patients in the state as of Wednesday.
Wassell, Kim, and Mintz are hopeful that newly approved antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck will reduce the number of patients with severe illness requiring hospitalization. The pills are likely to become available in New Hampshire within the next few weeks.
The strain on hospitals may drop again in early January, when more help arrives from the federal government. Governor Chris Sununu and Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette announced on Wednesday that FEMA will deploy three teams dedicated to administering monoclonal antibodies at three hospitals in New Hampshire: Elliot Hospital, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital and Concord Hospital. Those teams will arrive on Jan. 3.
As of Sunday, an average of six Granite Staters were dying of COVID each day, down from a high of 9.7 on Dec. 21. This is fewer than the peak of 11.7 deaths per day during the first wave.
As of Wednesday, there were 8,147 known active cases in the state. There have been 196,656 confirmed cases and 1,950 COVID-related deaths in the state 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 state health department show that 62 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. Similarly, the state reports that 56 percent of Granite Staters are fully vaccinated, while the CDC’s number is 11 points higher, at 67 percent. The difference between the state and the CDC in terms of total doses administered is nearly 700,000.
Early studies released in the past few weeks have suggested that both Pfizer and Moderna offer strong protection against omicron. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine may also offer strong protection, according to a new study published on Wednesday by researchers in South Africa. The study found that one shot and a booster of the J&J vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization from omicron by about 85 percent, as compared to unvaccinated people.
“Vaccines and boosters remain the best public health measure to protect people from severe COVID-19, slow transmission and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging,” Wassell said.
While most of New Hampshire’s girls are white, the population of diverse girls increased by 61 percent between 2006 and 2019, according to a new report by the N.H. Women’s Foundation.
Of the 125,000 girls who live in New Hampshire, 7 percent are Hispanic or Latina, 5 percent are multiracial, 3 percent are Asian, and 2 percent are Black, according to data through 2019. New analysis of that data shows that girls experience disparate outcomes depending on their race, geographic location, and gender.
For instance, the report found that disparate health outcomes between boys and girls were exacerbated by other factors like race, ethnicity and geography. When it comes to mental health, girls in the state are more likely to suffer from poor mental health than boys, with the greatest depression and suicide consideration rates in the Winnipesaukee and the greater Sullivan areas. That was more so for some girls of color; 52 percent of Hispanic or Latina girls reported feeling depressed and 31 percent said they considered suicide.
While the rate of girls experiencing poverty in New Hampshire is one of the lowest in the nation at 8 percent, more girls living in the rural parts of the state are likely to live in poverty. In Coos County, for instance, 13 percent of girls did as of 2019. In Sullivan County, it was as high as 18 percent, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, the report found, 15 percent of girls receive some sort of government assistance.
The report also highlights trends in use of contraception among New Hampshire girls; as the use of the birth control pill and IUDs, or intrauterine devices, has gone up, condom use has gone down, the report found, suggesting that this may be linked to a 43 percent rise in cases of chlamydia since 2014. Chlamydia is an STD that disproportionately affects women and girls, according to the report.
Girls are also disproportionately affected by bullying, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence than boys, according to the report; 17 percent of girls experienced sexual violence in the past year, and 65 percent of sexual bullying or harassment reports at school are filed by girls.