12072021 Claremont COVID Clinic

Families line up around the Claremont Fire Station and across the Fiske Free Library’s front walkway for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, which included free booster shots and first vaccine doses for children aged 5 to 12. A number of communities throughout Sullivan County are seeing significant surges in cases, leading to a range of policies and measures.

A number of Sullivan County communities, in effort with the state of New Hampshire, are working to combat yet another surge in novel coronavirus cases that has impeded government operations and public schooling with a collaborative push toward vaccinations.

The state of New Hampshire opened registration for “Operation Booster Blitz,” a community-based calculated effort across 15 municipalities to get more people vaccinated. One of those sites will be located in Claremont at the former Liquor Store at 367 Washington St.

Officials are hoping that this opportunity will build upon three other vaccination clinics held recently in the city that have brought out a large number of residents to receive either their first or second dose or third/booster shot.

And the “blitz” couldn’t come at a more necessary time.

New Hampshire has made national headlines for leading the country in the highest seven-day per capita new case rate with 1,060 cases per day over the most recent seven-day period. On Dec. 3, the state announced nearly 1,500 new cases.

In Sullivan County, the new case rate per 100,000 is the highest in the state, with 1,812.5. This is paired with 369 active cases, 70 hospitalizations, and a seven-day test positivity rate of 17.7 percent, which is only second to Coos County at 19.9 percent, according to the state’s COVID-19 information center.

In Claremont, officials have made wearing masks in public buildings a requirement to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“I have worked with my staff to make sure everyone is wearing masks in public buildings and socially distancing,” said City Manager Ed Morris.

Morris added that staff members are not required to wear masks in private areas of public buildings.

“We haven’t talked much on a new city protocol, but we have a public meeting on Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss our COVID response at large and going back to Zoom sessions,” Morris said. “The meeting is open to the public and accessible through Facebook live and CCTV.”

Morris said he doesn’t know yet if there will be a city-wide mask mandate.

“I can’t speak for the county commissioners,” he said.

Claremont Superintendent Michael Tempesta said that in the face of the recent rise in COVID-19 numbers things have been relatively steady in the school district.

“It’s going remarkably well,” Tempesta said. “Most of the student absences have been coming from students and their family having COVID, and has had as much of an impact as one would think.”

In the past week, at least seven cases have been identified by school district staff. While it is not clear if these cases are amongst students, staff, or a combination of both, educator absences mixed with a problem finding substitutes has made things a bit tougher.

“We have had trouble finding substitute teachers,” Tempesta said. “We thought we would have more impact with teacher absences but that hasn’t happened,” Tempesta said. “But I attribute that to students, family and staff following COVID protocols.”

The effects are also being felt outside the classroom and on the court.

“We mask at athletic functions such as sports,” Tempesta said. “Audience and off-the-court players are masked. On-court players are not masked in New Hampshire games. Our athletes wear masks on the courts in Vermont games.”

The recent rise in cases in both the city and the county have led some to think of remote learning as an option. That is precisely what Monadnock Regional Middle/High School did in late-November due to illness-related staffing shortages.

But, according to Tempesta, the community isn’t at that stage yet.

“It has definitely been a relief to get back to in-person teaching,” Morris said, “and we are doing remarkably well in spite of Sullivan County being the highest in the state.”

And moving to remove learning isn’t a simple process. Per Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, remote learning doesn’t count toward official school days.

In Newport, Fire Chief Steven J. Yannuzzi, along with other officials, health care workers, and emergency responders are continuing to promote safe, tried and true protocols to combat the surge.

“If we get a call for a COVID positive exposure we always use our PPE equipment and clean the ambulances,” Yannuzzi said. “We are constantly encouraging COVID vaccinations, wearing a mask, and social distancing.”

Newport is currently dealing with nearly 100 active cases, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

But while cases are still increasing, things are looking up, according to Yannuzzi. At a Dec. 4 vaccination clinic held in town 350 people came out to receive a vaccine dose.

“There is no mask mandate right now. We are using the honor system,” he said.

Yannuzzi said there is no reason why everyone can’t get vaccinated.

“Early on we had a lack of vaccines, then we had a lack of places to distribute the vaccines. Now we have plenty of vaccines and good access,” Yannuzzi said.

Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said that he has seen a large community pushback to a number of policies aimed to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Newport schools don’t do the Test To Stay program or weekly PCR testing due in large part to pushback expressed at a September school board meeting where parents said they would not give permission for their children to participate if certain policies were implemented. The superintendent of schools also noted that the community has also been against the wearing of masks in schools.

But despite this response, Minnihan said the school district is fairing pretty well.

“When school started we decided if there were less than two positive COVID cases in school that masks were optional. If we had three or more cases it would be mandated,” Minnihan said. “We have 90 percent in attendance and are fighting hard to keep in-person learning.”

Minnihan continued: “We ordered a case of rapid COVID tests and we take temperatures at the door and if there are any questions we send them home with a home rapid test,” Minnihan said. “This is our only option presently because a large number of parents said they would not agree to in-school testing.”

In Lempster, the town and school approach to tackling the recent surge has been a mixed response.

Lempster Administrative Assistant Robin Cantara declined to comment on the town’s COVID response plan but did mention the results of the special selectboard meeting held on Dec. 2.

“The decision to social distance at meetings but not require people to wear masks was unanimous,” Cantara said.

Traci Homol, Lempster Selectboard member, echoed the board’s decision.

“The vote was to maintain social distance at meetings and feel free to wear a mask,” Homol said.

James Lewis, Superintendent for the Lempster School District, which educates up to seventh grade, said they have currently returned to remote learning until the numbers drop in early December.

“Just before Thanksgiving — actually the Thursday before Thanksgiving — we were at a 62 percent attendance rate and my nurses advised us to go to remote learning,” Lewis said.

The school bought a van with their COVID seed money to use specifically for lunch delivery for the students.

“We will use it as a small bus for other things, too, like hauling athletics, small field trips, and sporting events,” Lewis said.

As far as the COVID response, Lewis said they have been hypervigilant since last year with how they function as a school.

“We have plexiglass dividers at all the desks and at the same setup in the cafeteria and masks are required when students are not within the dividers. Every Wednesday and after every function we fog the entire school,” Lewis said. “The janitors have backpack foggers and the whole building is reset to normal every week, sometimes more frequently depending on functions. Hat’s off to the janitors for all the work they are doing cleaning the building, the partitions and everything else. It’s a big job.”

Lewis said the athletic gym has a state of the art air filtration system that measures carbon dioxide levels in microns.

“This has been an incredibly supportive community as far as getting vaccinated, tested, social distancing and wearing masks,” Lewis said. “We had a book fair on Sept. 22 and 100 percent in attendance wore masks with no argument at all. I was impressed and very happy about that,” Lewis said.

vtreporter @eagletimes.com

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