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N.H. officials: Anyone who waited in line to vote on Election Day should monitor for COVID-19

  • Voting at Mascenic Regional High School in New Ipswich on Tuesday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

NH Public Radio
Published: 11/13/2020 11:53:28 AM

Anyone who stood in line at a New Hampshire polling place on Election Day should monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, state officials said Thursday — more than one week after the election took place.

This guidance came as the state announced potential coronavirus exposures linked to four polling places: Souhegan High School in Amherst, Pembroke Academy, Belmont High School and Newfields Elementary School.

“These were all people that identified in the last couple of days of having positive COVID-19 tests and reported being in line and not being able to six-foot socially distance while being in line,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibnette said at a press conference where the state announced the exposures.

But Shibinette and Gov. Chris Sununu said anyone who waited in line at a polling place on Election Day — regardless of whether they were at one of the locations with a potential exposure — should be on alert for coronavirus symptoms. 

“What we don’t want to do is say these four locations are all you have to worry about,” Sununu said. “Our sense is, there was more voters out there than ever before, and our level of COVID was very, very — higher than it has been in the past. I think the message, the important part of the message is, everybody needs to act like they might have come in contact with, potentially, someone with COVID.”

While election officials and voters generally reported smooth sailing at the polls last week, long lines were also reported in communities of all sizes. A voter from Amherst, one of the communities now identified as the site of a potential exposure, also reached out to NHPR on Election Day to relay concerns about a lack of social distancing when she cast her ballot.

It’s not clear exactly when the affected individuals were at each polling location where potential exposures have been detected, as state health officials have not confirmed those details. State election records indicate that a combined 12,000 people passed through the polling places in Amherst, Pembroke, Belmont and Newfields on Election Day. Statewide, more than 553,000 people showed up to vote in-person on Nov. 3.

In the months leading up to the elections, election officials encouraged voters to vote absentee this year in order to practice better social distancing at the polls and to avoid the kind of potential polling place exposures the state is now warning against. About 260,000 voters — or 32 percent — availed themselves of the state’s expanded COVID-19 absentee voting options this year.

The governor himself cast a ballot at one of the affected polling places, in Newfields, though he says he was there several hours before the potential exposure took place.

“There really was no ability to cross over there,” Sununu said. “But again, it’s a statewide concern. And I think everyone needs to just, again, if you have symptoms, if you have concerns, stay quarantined, get tested, follow the protocols we’ve put in place.”

NHPR was unable to locate a public notice about the exposures on the websites of Pembroke and Newfields as of the time of publication Thursday evening, and state health officials have not yet responded to a request for more information about when the affected individuals were at each polling place.

Sununu, a resident and local voter in Newfields, said the person who tested positive after visiting that polling location was present “between 12 and 12:30.” A press release on Amherst’s website says local officials were informed “that someone who voted last Tuesday between 10:15 and 11:15 has tested positive for COVID-19.” A notice on Belmont’s website does not offer details about the time of the potential exposure but encourages “all individuals who were present at the polls” to monitor for symptoms and seek testing if necessary.

Belmont Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin said she learned about the potential polling place exposure in her community a few hours before it was announced publicly on Thursday. Beaudin said state officials contacted Belmont’s health officer to disclose the exposure and to let the town know that it would be discussed at Thursday’s press conference. Beaudin said she and other local officials took their own steps to notify local officials who worked at the polls last Tuesday, as well as the superintendent of the school where voting took place.

“I think that we are fairly confident that this was not a high-risk exposure, obviously any exposure to COVID-19 is a risk,” Beaudin said. “But I believe the individual was wearing a mask, and I know that the town clerk's staff and poll workers were doing everything possible to make certain that social distancing to the best of their ability was maintained.”

Pembroke Town Clerk James Goff said state officials reached out to his community on Tuesday. Based on what he knows, Goff said the individual who tested positive was at the Pembroke polling place close to closing time, long after most other voters already passed through.

Goff said he's confident in the precautions Pembroke officials took last Tuesday — including a mandatory mask policy inside the polling place and plexiglass shields separating voters from the pollworkers checking them in — as well as the support he received from state election officials leading up to the vote.

"As far as support, making sure we had everything we needed, I thought they did a good job," Goff said. "And I thought my ballot clerks, anyone who was working, took it really seriously."

NHPR also reached out to local officials in Amherst and Newfields seeking additional insight into how they are responding to the potential exposures at their polling locations.

At Thursday’s press conference, Shibinette said the state became aware of the potential polling place exposures “in the last two or three days.” As of press time, the state’s health agency did not respond to follow-up questions about when they became aware of the exposures and what steps they took to notify affected pollworkers or members of the public prior to Thursday’s press conference.

The Secretary of State’s office, which has been spearheading the state’s strategy for running elections during the pandemic, also did not respond to questions from NHPR about the Election Day exposures and any steps they are taking to respond.


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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