Exposures to Covid-19, State House’s contact tracing questioned

A sign outside the Legislative Office building asks visitors not to enter if they have Covid-like symptoms. (Ethan DeWitt / New Hampshire Bulletin)

When Beverly Cotton received the call informing her of potential Covid-19 exposure during a legislative committee session, it was not from New Hampshire House. It came from another member of the audience.

Cotton, of Weare, had joined a dozen other lobbyists, lawyers and journalists on November 12 to watch the Friday morning proceedings of the House Election Law Committee. Two days later, he was told that someone in the room had subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

The alert was concerning for Cotton, who has an underlying health problem and was planning to attend a family reunion the following weekend with an immunocompromised brother.

But the way she received the news was unusual.

Cotton, a citizen activist, had been informed by the executive director of the voting rights organization Open Democracy, Olivia Zink. Zink had been informed by another lobbyist present. This lobbyist had heard the news from a lawmaker, who shared with her a screenshot of a warning from the Speaker’s office that had only been sent to lawmakers. At no time was news of the Covid-19 exposure during the committee hearing released to the public.

Cotton promptly ordered a test and his results came back negative. Zink did the same, testing herself and her daughter. But the experience left both frustrated, they say.

“I’m not as compromised as some people, but I’m not as tough in the infection control world as a lot of people, so I have to be a little more careful,” Cotton said. “However, the only way for us to be able to participate in our process here and hear what’s going on is to introduce ourselves in person.”

Uninformed public

As the New Hampshire legislature wraps up its final work in the weeks leading up to the January legislative session, officials in the Speaker’s Office have highlighted the adequacy of the Covid-19 protocols that have been put in place.

“We are actively working with those who are known to have tested positive to identify their close contacts,” said House spokeswoman Jennifer Tramp. “We keep these close contacts informed and provide them (Department of Health and Human Services) with advice on self-monitoring for symptoms. Where possible, without revealing private medical information, we work with others familiar with the situation to further develop our consideration of possible close contacts. “

But critics argue that when it comes to known cases of exposure to Covid-19, the legislature still does not use a robust contact tracing system that would allow random participants in hearings to be notified that they may have been exposed.

So far, the few potential exhibits over the past two months that are known to lawmakers have not been made public to those attending the hearings.

Meanwhile, Democrats and some members of the public continue to push lawmakers to implement remote participation options for lawmakers who don’t feel safe attending committees or House plenary sessions.

Critics also complained that some members of the Legislature showed up to committee meetings despite coughing and chose not to wear masks.

Voluntary contact search

Cotton is among those raising concerns. Shortly after being made aware of the potential exposure to Covid-19, she wrote an email to Speaker of the House Sherman Packard, a Republican from Londonderry.

“President Packard and Speaker of the Senate Morse,” she began in the email, which she shared with the Bulletin, “I’ll admit right off that I’m angry!”

Cotton shared his personal experience during the Friday morning committee session. She spoke in favor of reinstating the live video streaming and remote participation options used by the Legislature in 2020 and early 2021. And she criticized the freedom of committee members to appear at hearings. and meetings despite showing symptoms similar to those of the common cold.

“Shouldn’t there be a requirement for testing for those who have these types of symptoms? Why is there no protocol in place? ” she wrote. “You’re a lot smarter than that, but you continue to behave in a very, with all due respect, inadequate and inappropriate manner. “

Democratic lawmakers have also increased the pressure. Earlier in the fall, a group of representatives who are also doctors wrote a letter to the president’s office, expressing concerns about the idea of ​​reconvening the entire House of 400 members in the room. representatives.

“Since members of the Majority House did not wear masks at committee meetings, a full House meeting in the Hall of Representatives is at serious risk of becoming a mass-market event,” said the letter. “And since neither vaccinations, nor masks, nor CVC upgrades are 100% effective in preventing the spread of disease, there is no way members can protect themselves. “

Democrats have their own ideas for mitigation. Representative David Cote, a Democrat from Nashua who is immunocompromised and has missed all sessions of the House and committees since the start of the pandemic, has pushed for committee members to participate remotely. For months, Côté sent alternate representatives to attend the committees he sits on.

Other Democrats have called for public counts to be published on the General Court’s website showing the total number of members who have reported to House leadership that they have tested positive for Covid-19.

One of the simplest tools possible, according to Representative William Marsh, doctor and Democrat of Wolfeboro, could be voluntary contact tracing. House committees, he said, should publish a login sheet where members of the public can leave their names, phone numbers and email addresses. In this way, he argued, potential exposure like that encountered by Cotton and Zink could be shared with those who opted to receive an email.

Marsh has had his own conflicts with House leadership over the Covid-19 protocols; earlier this year, he went from Republican to Democrat, months after criticizing members of the Republican Party for irresponsible behavior in the weeks leading up to President Dick Hinch’s death from Covid-19 in December.

In an interview, Marsh argued that the contact tracing difficulties stemmed from the desire of House leaders not to violate the privacy of anyone who may have Covid-19.

“They’ve really been very reluctant to tell people when people are exposed,” Marsh said.

Members of the speaker’s bureau highlighted actions they deem significant, including the use of double-sized committee rooms, the encouragement of the use of masks by members, the installation of filtration systems. air in courtrooms, providing masks and hand sanitizer, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and asking members, staff and the public to stay home if they experience symptoms such as Covid.

“The current mitigation measures within the State House complex are systematically assessed as needed and are always consistent with the measures outlined in the Universal Best Practices document,” Tramp said in the statement. “We will follow this protocol and update our metrics as necessary to move forward. “

The House has not announced whereabouts plans for its sessions scheduled for Jan. 5 and 6, the first full-body gatherings scheduled since June. Throughout the first half of the year, the House rented space at the NHSportsplex in Bedford to allow for additional space, although some Republicans insisted that meetings resume in the Hall of Representatives.

A lawsuit filed by Democrats in federal court looms over the decision. The Boston U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held a hearing in the case in September, but has yet to render a decision.

For Cotton, action should be taken before this decision.

“I was lucky when someone found out about this so they could let me know – where you don’t have any process in place for this,” she wrote in her email to Packard and Morse. “My elderly brother and sister are now in danger. And everything is preventable.

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