Sununu expands testing, reveals record, single-day death toll

Gov. Chris Sununu announced dramatic expansion of testing for COVID-19 on the same day the state marked a record for single-day deaths linked to the novel coronavirus.

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu announced plans to dramatically expand testing on New Hampshire’s deadliest day of the COVID-19 crisis, with 19 deaths reported, by far the most since the pandemic began.

Under the expanded testing protocol, anyone with a single symptom will be permitted to schedule a test even without a doctor’s recommendation.

Those eligible for testing at five sites across the state also will include people without symptoms but who are at a greater risk of contracting the virus, including people over 60, anyone with a chronic medical condition such as asthma or diabetes and all health care workers, Sununu said.

National Guard troops and state vendors will man these public testing location in Claremont, Rochester, Plymouth, Lancaster and Tamworth.

“This is going to be a very important tool as we go forward,” the governor said.

To schedule a test, fill out the form found at the state’s COVID-19 website (bit.ly/2L8GjUA) or call the state Health and Human Resources Department at 271-5980.

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, 400 people had already signed up for a test.

19 new deaths

The welcome and long-awaited news about tests had to share the headlines with the report of 19 new deaths linked to the coronavirus, all of them at long-term care residences.

Of the 111 deaths statewide so far, 86 (or 78%) have been linked to housing facilities for seniors or the infirm. That percentage is the highest in the country, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“We have a frail population, third-oldest state in the country. We have taken some aggressive actions right at the beginning,” said Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette.

“There is always a point where I can say I wish I would have had the supplies at the first of March to test all long-term care staff, but that was not a reality. We have those supplies now.”

Last week, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, said the state would receive $17 million to expand testing.

Centers with COVID-19

HHS has released a list of 16 long-term centers reporting 839 positive cases and 66 deaths as of May 4.

Hanover Hill Health Care in Manchester had the most deaths with 18 and the second-highest number of positive cases, with 120.

The four centers with the most deaths behind Hanover Hill are Huntington of Nashua, Aurora Assisted Living in Derry and Salem Woods in Salem, all with seven. Pleasant Valley Health Care in Derry has had five.

On Wednesday, Pleasant Valley officials reported they had 131 positive cases, including 92 residents. Both numbers are state highs.

Shibinette also announced a stepped-up regimen of testing long-term care staff and residents of nursing homes now that the state’s vendor is nearly finished testing all staff at homes in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties. Nearly three-fourths of all COVID-19 positive cases have occurred in residents of these two counties.

Eventually this long-term care program will lead to nursing home staff having access to testing every 7 to 10 days.

The state also has received supplies to administer the far less invasive nasal cavity test, Shibinette said.

Eventually, she said, the state plans to do random screening each week at 10 different long-term care facilities, where staff will test 10% of the patient population.

Protecting businesses from lawsuits

Sununu said he hopes Congress will pass a federal law to protect businesses against lawsuits brought by employees or customers who contract the virus, but said the state could act if the federal government doesn’t.

The Business and Industry Association has urged Sununu and the Legislature to give businesses protection under state law.

“I would hope the federal government would take it up; it really is a national issue,” Sununu said.