CLAREMONT — Two of the communities in the Upper Valley with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates are now among the highest in New Hampshire for the most new infections.
School and municipal officials in Claremont and Newport appear reluctant to institute mitigation strategies such as mask mandates even though the spike in cases is being felt by area hospitals and businesses, and may affect school operations.
Claremont officials now “strongly recommend” masks in city buildings, but City Manager Ed Morris said officials are “not going to fight with anybody” who’s not wearing a mask.
Just 47 percent and 51 percent of residents in Claremont and Newport, respectively, had had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of last week.
Both are well below the statewide average of 59 percent of residents with at least one dose.
In a recent two-week period, Claremont recorded 67 new COVID-19 cases and Newport had 32 new cases, giving Claremont a rate of 516 per 100,000 people and Newport a rate of 503 per 100,000. That’s just below Laconia’s top rate in the state with 548 cases per 100,000.
In spite of the rising case numbers, the Newport School Board earlier this month voted to start the academic year with masks optional, rejecting recommendations from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that would require masks in counties with “substantial” or “high” community transmission.
Newport School Board member Rhonda Callum-King said during the board’s Aug. 19 meeting that the decision-making matrix created by DHHS to help schools determine when to require masks because of community transmission, such as the rate of new cases in a county over the past seven days, seems random.
“I don’t like arbitrary,” Callum-King said in a video recording of the meeting. “I like factual.”
The CDC defines “substantial” transmission as 50 to 100 cases per 100,000, or a positivity rate between 8 percent and 10 percent, and “high” transmission is 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 10 percent or higher.
Every county in New Hampshire, including Sullivan County, was at “high” transmission as of Thursday afternoon, according to an interactive map on the CDC website.
However, because the community transmission numbers are county-wide and don’t indicate where cases are, such as an outbreak in a nursing home, Callum-King said they aren’t helpful in determining risk to the school community.
And some parents say transmission levels are beside the point: “What it boils down to is you’re not going to make my child wear a mask,” said a parent in attendance at the meeting who didn’t identify himself, but said he had been in the military and his wife is a nurse practitioner. “It doesn’t do any good.”
Russell Medbery, the board’s vice chairman, sought to defend the use of masks, which he compared to condoms, as a tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“The community [transmission rate] still is an indicator of the likelihood of people getting COVID and then transmitting it,” said Medbery, who is on the faculty at Colby-Sawyer College in New London. “... I would be really upset if anyone got significantly sick or passed away.”
Medbery ultimately supported the board’s unanimous, 3-0, decision to institute mask requirements in a school only when there are three or more confirmed cases.
“The Newport School District Reopening Plan approved by the Newport School Board on Aug. 19, contains layers of safety for students and staff,” said Jenna Darling, the board’s chairwoman, in an emailed statement last week.
Students will be asked to maintain a distance of 3 feet from others and continue hand-washing, Darling said. In addition, cleaning and sanitizing protocols remain in place. Due to a federal rule, masks are required on school buses. She also said the reopening plan, which includes the masking recommendations, may be modified in the future should conditions change.
The Newport Teachers’ Association, in an emailed statement, said that students managed masks well last year and that they helped to keep students in school. While the association said teachers will uphold the district’s new policy of making masks optional unless there are three or more cases in a particular school, the NTA encouraged everyone to wear masks in schools and also to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Much like requiring our athletes to wear safety equipment like helmets, pads and mouth guards, a mask in addition to social distancing, sanitizing and hand-washing, adds another level of protection,” the association wrote in its statement.
Claremont school officials, for their part, have so far supported a masking plan based on DHHS’ recommendations that factors in community transmission so that, given current levels, masks would be required.
“We can’t really say anymore that kids are not vectors of this virus,” said Frank Sprague, chairman of the Claremont School Board. “We know better than that now considering the delta variant.”
Sprague said the schools have an obligation to protect people in the community and that if they take a more lenient approach with precautions, some other districts might refuse to face them in athletic competitions.
Schools ought to be opening with universal masking and other mitigation strategies such as ventilation and testing due to the transmissibility of the delta variant and high community transmission levels across the Twin States, said Anne Sosin, policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College.
She said state officials ought to give clearer guidance to school leaders because, “School leaders do not have the public health expertise to be making these decisions.”
The delta variant is going to amplify the effect of these policy decisions, Sosin said.
“This [variant] is really unforgiving,” she said. It’s “important to get it right now.”
In the meantime, COVID-19 is having an effect on day-to-day life in Sullivan County.
Valley Regional Hospital, which has 25 beds, is seeing an increase in COVID-19 testing and hospitalizations, which as of Wednesday, stood at two.
“We attribute the increasing numbers ... to a confluence of lower vaccination rates and markedly increased prevalence of the delta variant, which has been shown to be much more infectious than the original virus,” said Tim McNulty, Valley Regional’s senior director of human resources.
Ramunto’s Brick Oven Pizza on Broad Street in Claremont closed during a recent weekend due to concerns that employees may have been exposed to a person with COVID-19, and workers at Time-Out Americana Grill on Mullberry Street resumed wearing masks.
“Day to day we deal with national shortages of products and, overall, customers understand it is a bigger issue than us,” said Nicholas Koloski, a Claremont city councilor who co-owns Time-Out. “We just kindly ask that everyone be patient as we all navigate this new industry and work hard to be consistent and safe. We strongly encourage all restaurants to be prepared for the worst and don’t let their guard down.”
Claremont officials, in conjunction with the Greater Sullivan County Public Health Network, have organized two free, walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinics for people 12 and older on Tuesday. The first is set to take place at the Claremont Community Center, 152 South St., from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and the second, at River Valley Community College from 1:30-4 p.m. More information about COVID-19 vaccines and locations is available online at vaccines.gov.