UNTIL RECENTLY, the response of the state of New Hampshire to the COVID pandemic has been mature, professional, and guided by solid expertise in public health under the direction of a skilled team of physicians, nurses, and other staff at the Department of Health and Human Services. As a doctor, I have seen first hand the extraordinary work being done by frontline health care workers and the positive impact of our state’s response. Overall, it was clear that the state’s public health policy was being informed by these experts.
But in recent weeks, something unfortunate and dramatic has shifted in our state’s final push toward recovery. It started over the last month with denying vaccinations to all New Hampshire students without logical justification. Fortunately, for the sake of the public health of all of our students, school faculty and staff, and their local communities, the governor relented after an overwhelming public outcry and allowed established public health principles to guide universal vaccination for everyone over 16.
Then came the flip-flop on returning to school. With virtually no notice, schools were told they had to open two weeks earlier than originally planned. Caught completely off guard, school systems have had to scramble to comply with this sudden policy reversal in spite of many having inadequate ventilation systems and inadequate indoor space to safely distance their children three feet from each other. Unlike the original return to school date of early May, children will not be able to have class outdoors as we are expecting a typical New Hampshire spring, with even a late spring snowstorm this past weekend and continued cold weather through the end of the month. Whereas the original May return to full-time in-person learning allowed for all teachers and staff to have time to be fully vaccinated, not all personnel could receive their second dose before the governor’s April 19 reopening.
And now, as New Hampshire is facing infection and hospitalization rates higher than those of the post-Thanksgiving surge, the governor has let his mask mandate lapse. The potential implications of this political gamble are enormous. With the current surge in cases, with less than a third of New Hampshire residents now fully vaccinated, and with variants of the COVID virus already detected in the state — variants known for their increased severity of disease and increased ability to spread — this is hardly the time to let down our guard.
Instead of consistent guidance for the entire state, individual communities and businesses are now left to enforce a patchwork of mandates, often with masking opponents who are more strident than ever without the universal rule. Aside from the direct threat this policy shift poses to the health of Granite Staters, it may well dash our hopes and our plans to fully reopen by this summer, perhaps the most important season economically for our small businesses and our hospitality and recreation industries.
We all want to return to life as it was before the pandemic. That is why, as a doctor, I hope the governor will once again return to a decision-making process that is guided by the science and the experts at the CDC and in our own Department of Health and Human Services. The cost of losing yet another life to this pandemic is a price too high to risk. We will defeat this virus without preventable additional tragedy, but only if we stick to what we know works — mask wearing, social distancing, good hand hygiene, and vaccination.