A COVID-19 outbreak has struck an assisted-living facility in Keene for the first time, officials said Thursday, as New Hampshire set another one-day record for new cases and the state announced it would no longer do contact tracing every time someone tests positive.
The outbreak is at the Prospect-Woodward assisted-living facility at the Hillside Village campus on Wyman Road, N.H. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
So far, eight residents and two staff members have tested positive, she said.
In an email Thursday, Hillside Village Executive Director Jolynn Whitten confirmed residents and staff have tested positive but did not give specific numbers.
“The health and safety of our team members and residents is our top priority; therefore, we enhanced our internal processes and protocols at the onset of this health crisis to better protect our community,” she said in the statement. “We are supporting the affected individuals, who are currently in quarantine or self-isolation. Our hope is that they have a full and rapid recovery.”
Whitten said the facility continues to clean and sanitize frequently, restrict visitation, forgo group meals and activities, require mask wearing and screen staff members daily for symptoms of COVID-19. Whitten did not immediately respond to a request for more information about how Hillside Village is handling the outbreak.
The outbreak is the first at a Monadnock Region long-term care facility since one at Crotched Mountain in Greenfield in the spring. But across New Hampshire, numerous nursing homes and other group-living facilities have seen outbreaks. Along with Hillside Village, state officials announced two other new outbreaks Thursday, at Coos County Nursing Hospital in Stewartstown and the N.H. Veterans Home in Tilton.
As of Thursday, long-term care settings had accounted for about 20 percent of the state’s total cases, and more than 80 percent of its deaths, according to state health data.
Shibinette said the state will likely see more nursing-home outbreaks as the virus spreads in the community.
“The staff that take care of these residents are part of our communities,” she said. “They go to our grocery stores, they interact with everybody else in the community, and our elderly residents in long-term care facilities don’t have the option to socially distance themselves from their caregivers.”
On Thursday, State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan announced that another three New Hampshire residents have died due to the coronavirus — residents of Hillsborough and Coos counties associated with long-term care facilities — bringing the total death toll to 495.
“This pandemic virus is now widespread in our state,” Chan said. “The number of infections is also increasing, the hospitalizations are increasing, the test positivity rate is increasing, and the number of people dying from COVID-19 is also increasing.”
He said 323 more Granite Staters have tested positive for the virus — another record high — and the first time the state has topped 300 new cases in a single day.
Meanwhile, with infections surging, the state health department will no longer call everyone who tests positive to identify other people they may have infected.
Instead, state contact tracers will focus on the groups that are at higher risk or likelier to spread the virus, including children, people over 65, health-care workers, members of racial and ethnic minorities that have been disproportionately affected and people in group care settings like nursing homes, Shibinette said.
The state will also rely on health-care providers to pass along information about isolating and quarantining when they inform people of positive COVID-19 tests, she added.
Cases in New Hampshire have been rising throughout the fall. The state averaged 240 new cases per day over the past week, compared to fewer than 30 in early September.
The numbers have also trended upward in Cheshire County, which added six more cases Thursday and is now averaging a record nine new cases per day, according to state health data.
Vermont also set a one-day record Thursday with 109 new cases, according to the news outlet Seven Days.
Gov. Chris Sununu noted that the percentage of tests coming back positive is rising, going from just below 1 percent in September to above 2 percent more recently. The numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has also surged — from 17 one month ago to 64 Thursday.
Both metrics are important because they show that the increase in cases is not just due to more people being tested, he noted.
Contact tracing shows the virus is often being spread at small gatherings of friends or extended family, where people are not social distancing or wearing masks, Sununu said.
He said the state doesn’t plan to restrict non-urgent hospital visits again, as it did in the spring, but can rapidly set up temporary medical facilities if cases and hospitalizations keep rising.
And he warned that daily case counts will likely get higher. “If you ask me where we’re gonna be in two weeks,” he said, “I think we’re over a thousand.”
Two performance venues in the Monadnock Region were recently awarded grants from a $12 million state program, which their directors say will help cover expenses while the organizations are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Peterborough Players and the Colonial Performing Arts Center in Keene are among the 38 venues statewide that will receive aid through the Live Venue Relief Program. The program draws on New Hampshire’s federal CARES Act funds to support performance venues that have lost revenue during the pandemic due to a lack of events and limited audience capacities.
“That CARES Act money has been absolutely essential,” said Keith Stevens, the Players’ managing director. “We are incredibly grateful for it. It’s how we’re going to be able to come back.”
The Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery announced the recipients Nov. 5.
The Peterborough Players, a nonprofit group that stages plays during the summer and started a winter season in 2016-17, will receive $169,503 from the program. The Colonial will receive $152,956.
Stevens said the theater canceled its summer program this year — to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 — for just the sixth time since it opened in 1933. Three of the other years were during World War II, he added. This year’s winter season has also been canceled.
In the summer, the Players traditionally hosts seven productions at its 250-seat theater in a converted 18th-century barn at Stearns Farm in Peterborough.
Stevens explained that it has lost more than $500,000 in expected revenue this year, primarily from ticket sales, as a result of canceling its summer program.
“That has been a large gap to make up,” he said.
Through a combination of public grants and private donations, however, the theater has been able to pay staff salaries, maintain its facilities and prepare for an eventual reopening, according to Stevens.
The Players has received funds from multiple other programs allocating CARES Act funds. In August, it was awarded nearly $21,000 from the state’s Nonprofit Emergency Relief Fund and $7,500 from the N.H. State Council on the Arts. Stevens said the theater also received a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
“These funds are absolutely essential for us to just maintain [its operations] and then prepare to reopen in 2021,” he said of the Live Venue Relief Program grant. “But we also still need the contributed support that we’ve been getting … in order to be in a position to come back and come back well.”
Stevens said that most of the funding the Players has received this year has come from individual donors and private foundations.
The theater has “every intention” of producing plays next year, and its staff is watching a number of factors, including the recent surge of COVID-19 infections in New Hampshire and the possible development of a vaccine, as they develop a reopening plan, he said. That will include improving the venue’s ventilation system, among other new safety features.
Stevens added that it is important for the Players to have a financial cushion when the organization resumes its operations so it can afford to develop plays.
“[When] we start working on a product, it could be six months in advance of when it’s ready,” he said. “We have to start expending the funds we need to create that product well in advance of when the show is actually open.”
The Colonial, which hosts live music, theatrical shows and other performances, earned $150,000 from the state’s Nonprofit Emergency Relief Fund and $7,500 from the N.H. State Council on the Arts this summer. Like the Players, the Colonial also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, according to its executive director, Alec Doyle.
Going into the year, the theater had planned to end its season in April and begin construction on a smaller, adjacent venue called Showroom.
Doyle said that the Colonial, which typically grosses more than $2 million annually, planned to open for an abbreviated season from October 2020 to March 2021, since the winter months are more lucrative. It would have then closed for construction on its main venue before reopening for another shortened season the following year, he said.
When it became clear the pandemic would prevent the organization from drawing its typical earnings, even in an abbreviated season, it scrapped that plan for an uninterrupted construction project on both venues that Doyle expects to be completed in December 2021. He called the pandemic’s financial toll on the theater “pretty catastrophic.”
Along with other public funding and private contributions, the Colonial will commit the Live Venue Relief Program grant to staff salaries and upkeep on its Main Street building, including utilities and insurance, according to Doyle. (The construction projects are financed by a capital campaign, he said.)
“We’ve been sort of piecing it together as we go,” he said. “It’s been pretty white-knuckle time often because you don’t know, past the next month or two, how you’re going to keep afloat.”
Doyle expressed appreciation to the state for the latest round of support. He added, however, that many venues are looking nervously to 2021, which they expect will be just as financially destructive for at least six months.
“All of this [aid] is really in support of lost revenue from 2020,” he said. “… The question will be, how do we get through that time period?”