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Rindge, New Ipswich, Jaffrey respond to spike in local COVID numbers

  • A sign along Route 124 in New Ipswich earlier this year warned visitors of the high COVID-19 danger in town. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/2/2020 4:36:58 PM

Reports of positive cases of COVID-19 surged in Rindge and New Ipswich through November and towns are seeking ways to tighten their pandemic response, including stricter rules for public buildings and enforcement of the state mask mandate.

Nearly 500 new COVID-19 cases were reported in New Hampshire over the weekend, with a handful in Rindge, a town that’s been particularly hard hit over the past month. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services reports a total of 98 Rindge residents tested positive for the COVID-19 virus since tracking began – more than any other town in the Ledger-Transcript’s coverage area. Comparatively, Keene, which has more than three times Rindge’s population, has reported a total of 186 cases.

Rindge Director of Public and Life Safety Rickard Donovan said when numbers in Rindge surged last week to more than 30 simultaneous active reported cases, the town decided to increase the number of emergency management meetings from twice a month to weekly, and he’ll be making recommendations for changes to access to public buildings during this week’s meeting.

Among those changes is likely to be a limiting of number of people allowed in public offices, such as the town clerk and tax collector, where hallways and waiting areas don’t allow for social distancing.

Donovan said he’ll also be recommending reduced occupancy loads for public buildings.

Numbers continue their upward climb

Nearly 500 new COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire were diagnosed over the weekend. New Ipswich has reported a total of 69 positive cases since tracking began, Jaffrey 55, and Peterborough 49.

These towns continue to report the highest current numbers of positive COVID-19 tests, with Jaffrey currently reporting 14 active cases, New Ipswich 12 cases, Peterborough 8 and Rindge 7. The majority of the region is still reporting four active cases or less. All those town reached their peak simultaneous active case counts about a week ago and have seen a decline in total active cases while still adding a few newly reported positive test results. 

A call for more transparency and better ability to enforce

Like most New Hampshire towns, Rindge has not adopted an individual mask mandate, deferring to the current state-wide mask mandate.

Rindge Selectman Bob Hamilton said the Select Board has steered away from a “cookie-cutter” townwide policy for its employees, and instead is allowing each department head to have the authority to decide how the department is run.

“They are the most sensitive to their own needs,” Hamilton said.

Donovan said his office has received multiple complaints about customers or employees of businesses not wearing masks, incorrectly wearing masks, or serving customers from out of state. Though Rindge Health Officer Karl Pruter has followed up on these complaints, the current state mandate has loopholes that are difficult to close, Donovan said. The mandate allows exemptions for medical reasons, for example, but residents are not required to offer any documentation of their medical issue in order to use a medical exemption.

“My opinion is the order has too much leniency,” Donovan said. “I know there are certain beliefs out there to do with masks. We’ve all heard it. ‘Nov. 4, the virus is going away.’ Well, here we are, and it’s still here.”

Also, most of the complaints his office receives aren’t specific, Donovan said, and are often about individual shoppers at some of the larger stores, including Market Basket, WalMart and Hannaford’s not wearing masks, after the fact. That makes the issue of mask enforcement a “slippery and moving target,” Donovan said.

In New Ipswich, the town has investigated several complaints filed with the state attorney general about non-compliance with state mandates, according to Lt. Michael Abel, but has not received any since the start of the state mask mandate on Nov. 20. The most recent complaints investigated by the department were two allegations in July. Abel said the department performed a compliance check with those businesses, and discussed the mandates with business owners.

Abel said he also advised businesses about their rights to enforce mask mandates, regardless of whether there was a town or state ordinance in place.

“If they are a private business, they have a right to enforce policy and refuse service,” Abel said. “It’s the same as if someone came in without a shirt. ‘No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.”

Customers who refuse to comply with store policies can be charged with trespassing or asked not to return if they refuse to leave.

Franklin Pierce finishes the semester “relatively unscathed”

About a quarter of Rindge’s total cases were reported from students attending Franklin Pierce University, which recently released students for a long winter break. The Rindge campus took an aggressive approach to testing and preventative measures, issuing hundreds of tests on randomly selected students each week, usually resulting in a small number of cases which were then quarantined in a separate facility.

By mid November, shortly before the holiday break, the Rindge campus had reported a total of 25 positive COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the school year.

“We’ve always restricted guests, required masks, been doing daily health screenings, required students to remain at home or in their room if symptomatic and reach out to Student Health Services. And as a university we continue our close working relationship with the COVID Emergency Response team in the town of Rindge,” said Andrew Pollom, dean of student affairs at Franklin Pierce University. “I think the combination of all those things and our partnership with Rindge, has helped us remain relatively unscathed this semester.”

When numbers began rising precipitously in Rindge prior to Thanksgiving, the college didn’t see the same increase in its own testing pools. Pollom said students were reminded not to become “complacent,” and to keep those preventive measures going.

Donovan said Franklin Pierce’s strict guidelines allowed their school year to continue intact.

“They did extremely well keeping numbers in line,” he said.

Not the time to relax

“There’s a surge around the country, and people need to take precautions,” said Rindge Health Officer and Selectman Karl Pruter. “Handwashing, wear your mask, social distancing. It’s all common sense.”

Rindge Town Administrator Sara Gravel said the town has increased its emergency management meetings from twice a month to every week, to try to keep an eye on the rising numbers. On Wednesday, the town planned to review updates from town departments on how they are addressing the issue.

“The priority, of course, is to protect the town employees and the public,” Gravel said. “There may be some modifications and restrictions to make people safe.”

New Ipswich Fire Chief Meredith Lund said she watched the numbers in New Ipswich climb over the past few months, and advocated for updated policies for employees to help keep her department functioning, including adopting a state guideline for critical infrastructure employees to allow them to forego quarantine regulations in certain cases, such as after travel or exposure to someone with COVID-19, if they are not symptomatic themselves.

Emergency services in New Ipswich have also shut down public access to their buildings, reverting to some of the procedures they put in place at the start of the pandemic.

Donovan receives regular updates on positive tests in Rindge, including where they are located if the fire or ambulance has to respond, he said. But the state only informs him of residents who have received a positive polymerise chain reaction, or PCR test. Those who were tested using a rapid test or antigen testing aren’t, even if their tests were positive.

Donovan said there’s been at least one case where emergency services had responded to a home with two people who had COVID-19, that they weren’t informed about beforehand.

“We need to know these things,” Donovan said.

In Jaffrey, Town Manager Jon Frederick said since positive cases have been on the rise, town employees have been reminded to be particularly mindful. The Jaffrey town offices, which have been open only by appointment for months, are continuing that model, as there isn’t sufficient social distancing space for residents.

“This is the mode we’ve been in the whole time,” Frederick said. “We understand well, that if there is one person on the Department of Public Works, for example, that got sick, we would have major problems with things like plowing. We are trying to keep people cognizant that this is coming around again. We’ve know that it would, we’ve known that since April.”

Jaffrey Fire Chief David Chamberlain said emergency services have cracked down on mask wearing in the station and on calls following the increase in cases and reports of positive cases in other local fire departments. He said the department had tapered off mask wearing in certain situations, but now is back to wearing them “100 percent” of the time while on duty. Jaffrey Police Secretary Denise Chatel said the Jaffrey Police Department has also taken the same approach.

Frederick said the town is trying to hold out through the winter, and hoping for a vaccine available to the general public in the spring, calling it a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.


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