COVID testing

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New Hampshire officials say they’re ramping up their efforts to test people for COVID-19, particularly those who live or work at long-term care facilities.

N.H. Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette described the new testing guidelines on the same day the state announced 19 additional COVID-19-related deaths, all affiliated with these types of facilities. As has been seen throughout the country, the virus has been known to travel quickly through congregate-living settings due to the close proximity of residents, many of whom already have health conditions. The 19 deaths involved residents of Hillsborough, Merrimack and Rockingham counties.

Also during Wednesday’s news conference, Gov. Chris Sununu announced an expansion of testing for the general public. Anyone who is either over 60, has an underlying medical condition, is a health care worker or is experiencing any symptom of COVID-19 can schedule a test online without a physician’s referral, he said.

Until recently, New Hampshire residents were encouraged to arrange testing through their primary care physicians. Those without a primary care doctor or who lack insurance were instructed to call 211 to arrange testing or get more information about options available through ConvenientMD.

Sununu said a link will go live Thursday on nh.gov that will allow residents who meet the criteria to book appointments for testing.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Shibinette said that while COVID-19 illness rates and hospitalizations for the general public have either leveled out or decreased, the opposite has happened in congregate-living settings.

Of the 111 total deaths related to the virus that have been confirmed so far among Granite Staters, she said more than 70 percent were affiliated with long-term care facilities.

“We took some very aggressive action early on,” she said. “And I think at this point it’s time to take further steps to address some of the long-term care testing issues.”

Shibinette said the state intends to test the workers and residents at all long-term care facilities.

New Hampshire has also received supplies from the federal government to perform a less invasive nasal swab. Those will be provided to all long-term care facilities so they can collect samples in-house and send them back to the state lab. These tests will be performed on all residents who have not already tested positive for the virus, according to Shibinette.

After that, she said, the state will randomly select 10 facilities to perform tests each week and will ask for swabs from 10 percent of their resident populations.

“This allows us to get a really good, diverse set of swabs from different facilities around the state to understand whether COVID-19 is coming into the resident population undetected in an asymptomatic resident,” she said.

The next focus, Shibinette noted, will be on testing staff members at long-term care facilities. The goal is to test all staff members for the virus every seven to 10 days in an effort to “stop this at the door.”

She said the plan is to set up seven to nine mobile testing units in collaboration with the National Guard, some of the state’s private partners and ConvenientMD, which is already doing testing across the state, to offer testing for these workers.

To date, New Hampshire has tested 1,000 residents and 5,000 employees of long-term care facilities, Shibinette said.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter

@MiaSummerson