CONCORD — Ramping up testing for COVID-19 will allow people even with mild symptoms to get tested at five new drive-through sites across the state, Gov. Chris Sununu and Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette announced Monday.
Sununu said the increased capacity and quicker processing of tests through private labs will help to triple the amount of testing New Hampshire was doing a few weeks ago. By the end of this week, patients with their physician’s approval can be tested at new locations in Claremont, Lancaster, Tamworth, Plymouth and Rochester.
The governor hopes to soon reach daily testing of 1,500.
“We continue to ramp up our testing capacity, something we have constantly been doing. We are now over 1,000 tests on certain given days, and we are giving ourselves a goal in the short term of going to 1,500 tests,” Sununu said. “We aren’t stopping there. I am going to keep moving the goalposts to get to an even higher and higher testing number.”
Shibinette said her agency is working with visiting nurse associations to bring testing to people who are unable to leave their homes and has been fine-tuning another program that schedules testing for those without health insurance.
The state has already asked its provider, Convenient MD, to prepare to test residents and staff at targeted long-term care centers across the state.
Convenient MD is currently testing all staff and residents at all nursing homes in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties for the state. Confirmed virus cases in these two counties make up nearly three-fourths of all positive results in the state.
Testing bar lowered
Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state’s epidemiologist, will later this week complete a new health alert to advise patients and physicians that the standards to get a test will be relaxed so anyone exhibiting the most minor symptoms can get tested, Shibinette said.
Earlier Monday a group of public health professionals led by former epidemiologist Rich DiPentima of Portsmouth and former state Rep. Mindi Messmer of Rye made expanding testing capacity a top recommendation to a Sununu-created task force working on plans to reopen certain segments of the New Hampshire economy.
“(You) have publicly stated doubts that NH has widely available testing,” Messmer and colleagues wrote Sununu and his group. “The Task Force must work with public health to expand testing ASAP to be able to assess strategic reopening of businesses.”
The health professionals also urged Sununu to add public health and emergency management professionals to the task force.
Sununu said he’s populated the task force with leaders from private industry and nonprofits, government officials and legislative members because all their recommendations will be reviewed by public health experts before they move forward.
Major guard operation
National Guard Adjutant Gen. David Mikolaities said guard members will be helping gather results at these mobile testing sites, which include three National Guard armories.
Other guardsmen spent last weekend helping to deliver food to needy families in the North Country.
The mission brings to five the number of different tasks the guard is handling in the fight against COVID-19.
Gen. Mikolaites said with 500 already deployed, the pandemic response will go down as the second largest guard callup in New Hampshire history.
The only larger response was to deal with multiple protests against the Seabrook nuclear power plant in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
HHS officials announced Monday 75 new cases of the novel coronavirus and no additional deaths, which kept fatalities at 60. This makes for 1,938 positive cases among 18,200 who were tested for the disease.
Shibinette said there were three new outbreaks of the virus among patients and staff at three long-term care centers:
Birch Hill Retirement Community, Manchester: seven residents and four staff members tested positive;
Crestwood Center, Milford: 14 residents and four staff tested positive;
Salemhaven Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility, Salem: nine residents and two staff tested positive.
Shibinette said there have been much smaller “clusters” or mini-outbreaks of the virus at unidentified businesses, but she said in most cases the number of cases at one business location was “five or fewer.”
The working groups named to recommend how to spend anti-COVID-19 money and to create guidelines for returning some of New Hampshire society to more normal operations will have findings soon, the governor said.
“I think by the end of the week we will have some good recommendations on how we move forward in the short and the long term,” Sununu said.
In other developments, Secretary of State Bill Gardner created a six-person group led by Ballot Law Commission Chairman Brad Cook to recommend how he should spend $3.5 million in federal grants to preserve integrity for the 2020 election.
Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Gardner issued an opinion that the pandemic can be used as a reason for many voters to use absentee ballots this fall.
But Sununu said he would “absolutely’’ oppose any attempt to permit all ballots to be cast by mail this fall.