Covid-19 exposures, State House contact tracing questioned

Still no system in place to notify hearing attendees of possible exposure
State House Covid Warning

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

When Beverly Cotton got the call telling her of a potential Covid-19 exposure at a legislative committee session, it didn’t come from the New Hampshire House. It came from a fellow audience member.

Cotton, of Weare, had joined a dozen other lobbyists, advocates, and reporters on Nov. 12 to watch the Friday morning proceedings of the House Election Law Committee. Two days later, she was being told that someone in the room had later tested positive for Covid-19.

The alert was worrying for Cotton, who has an underlying health condition and who was planning to attend a family gathering the following weekend with a brother who is immunocompromised.

But the manner in which she received the news was unusual.

Cotton, a citizen advocate, had been told by the executive director of the voting rights advocacy organization Open Democracy, Olivia Zink. Zink had been told by a different lobbyist in attendance. That lobbyist had heard the news from a lawmaker, who had shared with her a screenshot of a warning from the House Speaker’s Office that was sent only to lawmakers. At no point was the news of the Covid-19 exposure in the committee hearing distributed to the public.

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

“I’m not as compromised as some people are, but I am not as robust in the infection-fighting world as a lot of people are, so I have to be a little extra careful,” Cotton said. “However, the only way for us to be able to participate in our process here and to hear what’s going on is to show up in person.”

Public uninformed

As the New Hampshire Legislature wraps up its final business in the weeks ahead of January’s legislative session, officials with the House speaker’s office have stressed the adequacy of the Covid-19 protocols that have been put in place.

“We actively work with those who are known to have tested positive to identify their close contacts,” a spokeswoman for the House, Jennifer Tramp, said. “We notify those close contacts and provide them with (Department of Health and Human Services) guidance on self-monitoring for symptoms. When possible, without revealing private medical information, we work with other individuals aware of the situation to further develop our review of possible close contacts.”

But critics argue that when it comes to known cases of Covid-19 exposure, the Legislature still isn’t using a robust contact tracing system that would allow random attendees of hearings to be told that they may have been exposed.

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

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

Critics have also complained that some members of the Legislature have shown up to committee meetings despite having coughs and have chosen not to wear masks.

Voluntary contact tracing

Cotton is one of those raising concerns. Shortly after she was told of the potential Covid-19 exposure, she wrote an email to House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican.

“Speaker Packard and Senate President Morse,” she began in the email, which she shared with the Bulletin, “I will admit right out of the gate that I am angry!”

Cotton laid out her personal experience in the Friday morning committee session. She argued in favor of restoring the video live-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 displaying cold-like symptoms.

“Shouldn’t there be some testing requirement for those having these types of symptoms? Why is there no protocol in place?” she wrote. “You guys are much smarter than this, yet you continue to behave in a very, with all due respect, inadequate and inappropriate way.”

Democratic lawmakers have also been turning up the pressure. Earlier in the fall, a group of representatives who are also doctors wrote a letter to the speaker’s office raising concerns about the idea of reconvening the full 400-member House in Representative’s Hall.

“Given that majority House members have not been wearing masks to committee meetings, a meeting of the full House in Representatives Hall seriously risks becoming a super-spreader event,” the letter states. “And since neither vaccinations, nor masks, nor HVAC upgrades are 100% effective in preventing the spread of disease, there is no way for members to protect themselves.”

Democrats have ideas of their own for mitigation. Rep. David Cote, a Nashua Democrat who is immunocompromised and has missed all House sessions and committee sessions since the onset of the pandemic, has pressed for remote participation for committee members. For months, Cote has sent substitute representatives to attend the committees he’s part of.

Other Democrats have asked for public tallies to be posted on the General Court website indicating the total number of members who have reported to House leadership that they have tested positive for Covid-19.

To Rep. William Marsh, a physician and Wolfeboro Democrat, one of the simplest possible tools could be voluntary contact tracing. House committees, he said, should put out a sign-in sheet where audience members can leave their names, phone numbers and email addresses. That way, he argued, a potential exposure like the one faced by Cotton and Zink could be shared with those who had opted in to be emailed.

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

In an interview, Marsh argued the contact tracing difficulties stem from a desire by House leadership not to breach the privacy of anyone who might have Covid-19.

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

Members of the speaker’s office have pointed to actions that they say are meaningful, including using double-sized committee rooms, encouraging mask use by members, installing air filtration systems in hearing rooms, providing masks and hand sanitizer, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and asking members, staff, and the public to stay home if they have Covid-like symptoms.

“Current mitigation measures within the State House complex are routinely evaluated as needed and have consistently fallen in line with measures outlined in the Universal Best Practices document,” Tramp said in the statement. “We will follow this protocol and update our measures as needed moving forward.”

The House has not announced location plans for its scheduled sessions on Jan. 5 and 6, the first planned whole-body gatherings since June. Throughout the first half of the year, the House rented space at the NHSportsplex in Bedford to allow for additional space, though some Republicans have pressed for resuming meetings in Representatives Hall.

Looming over that decision is a lawsuit filed by Democrats in federal court. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston held a hearing on that case in September but has not issued a decision yet.

To Cotton, action should be taken before that decision.

“I was fortunate when someone learned of this so they could notify me – where you have no process in place for that,” she wrote in her email to Packard and Morse. “My elderly brother and sister have been placed at risk now. And it is all preventable.”

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