Citing the state’s record levels of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Gov. Chris Sununu announced new statewide at-home testing and vaccination programs Tuesday in addition to issuing an executive order allowing hospitals to set up large “surge” treatment rooms. The order also directs more resources to the state agency that must process licenses for health-care professionals before they can begin working.
“I’d like to tell you that I think that we’ve maxed out on our hospitalizations and our cases,” Sununu said at a COVID-19 update. “We have not. Unfortunately, the trends I’m looking at (show) at least two, three, or four more weeks of increasing rates.”
State officials are identifying jobs the National Guard could fill, but Sununu said there are no plans to activate troops immediately. If that changes, state officials would look to non-medical personnel for help with laundry and dietary services or patient observation rather than pull medical providers out of health-care jobs elsewhere.
This latest COVID-19 response comes as the state is averaging 1,000 new infections a day and 350 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, numbers not previously seen during the pandemic, state epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan said. In the last two days, the state has announced 14 new COVID-19 deaths.
Available hospital beds are also at an all-time low, with only about 12 percent of regular beds and 6 percent of ICU beds open Tuesday, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. At least two hospitals — Concord Hospital and the Cheshire Medical Center — are postponing elective surgeries that require an inpatient stay to preserve space for COVID-19 and other health emergencies.
Sununu noted that strained capacity means patients across the state have to wait longer for care. It’s an argument, he said, for more people to get vaccinated. About 64 percent of the state is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“If you have a loved one in the waiting room that’s having heart palpitations and they can’t be seen for potentially two or three hours, that’s a scary time,” Sununu said. “And we’ve heard stories like that because these hospitals are at capacity. So it’s not just about individuals with COVID.”
Allowing hospitals to use non-traditional spaces to set up their own large “surge” centers will allow them to treat more patients in a centralized, more efficient setting, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette. The challenge is going to be staffing those surge wards. The state is critically short on health-care workers as they leave their professions due to burnout or over refusal to comply with vaccine mandates.
“Where’s the staffing coming from? That is the big question,” Shibinette said. “In health-care, they’ve called it the ‘Great Resignation.’ …I think our health-care professionals are having a hard time continuing, going on 20 months now of this, and knowing that there is prevention out there and there’s a good portion of our population that’s choosing not to get it.”
In hopes of easing that staffing shortage, Sununu’s executive order provides the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification additional resources to speed up license approvals. After the pandemic hit, the office received 22,000 emergency license applications and had to process them by hand initially.
Before the executive order was announced, the office had asked the Executive Council for nine additional temporary workers. The council is scheduled to vote on the request at its meeting Wednesday. Reached after Tuesday’s COVID-19 update, the agency’s executive director, Lindsey Courtney, thanked Sununu for his efforts.
“Over the past 18 months, the office has been undergoing a necessary restructuring to find ways to streamline the licensure process,” Courtney said. “The office welcomes the support of this order to determine ways to expedite the processing of licensing applications and criminal history records checks, streamline licensing, and increase eligibility to qualified applicants.”
Sununu announced new COVID-19 vaccination and testing efforts Tuesday as well.
On Dec. 11, the state will offer booster doses at 20 clinics around the state during a “Booster Blitz.” (Boosters are currently available at pharmacies and local clinics as well as through primary-care providers.) Booster Blitz appointments will be available on the state’s vaccination registration site — vaccines.nh.gov — in the coming days.
Another new initiative will make at-home testing much easier. A partnership between the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Amazon will allow members of the public to order a rapid test online and have it sent to their home at no charge. A link to order those tests will soon be at COVID19.nh.gov.
The state has received 50,000 rapid tests that it is making available to schools upon request. It will receive an additional 100,000 at-home PCR tests in December that will be made available to schools first.