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Shaheen touts relief funds for vaccine, arts, hungry in Seacoast stops

EXETER — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen toured the New Hampshire National Guard’s COVID-19 vaccination site at Exeter High School Friday to thank them for their hard work, and to let them know more federal resources are on the way.

Shaheen, D-NH, said this week’s approval of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan relief package will help the state further ramp up its vaccine distribution efforts. She said the new legislation doubles the amount of grant monies New Hampshire receives to administer the vaccine.

“One of the challenges that New Hampshire and 11 or 10 other small states had, is that when the funding went out in early January, from the December package, the Centers for Disease Control decided to use a per capita formula, as opposed to what had been used in the past under the public health emergency preparedness grant program,” Shaheen said. “So, New Hampshire, Maine was only going to get about half of what we thought we needed. That's been rectified in the COVID relief package.”

Perry Plummer, former commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Safety, now overseeing the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccination around the state, joined Shaheen on the tour, and said the block of funding will speed up the state’s logistical undertaking as more vaccines are produced.

“This is not an inexpensive response nationally or in New Hampshire; everything from interpreters when they’re needed, to transport the vaccine, to the staffing,” Plummer said. “All those things cost money, and the only thing that we have to do is make sure that they're ready to put the needles in the arm, without funding, we can't do that.”

Plummer said the state is 10 days to two weeks “ahead of schedule” for meeting President Joe Biden’s May 1 target date to make all adults eligible to receive the vaccine.


“Every decision we’ve had to make was made on the basis of not having enough vaccine,” Plummer said. “We have full capacity to put those needles right in arms as soon as we get the vaccine.”

According to New Hampshire Army National Guard Lt. Col. Jeremy Bird, the guard and assisting volunteers reached the 200,000 mark for vaccines administered at fixed sites around the state Thursday. 

“(For National Guard soldiers) this is day-in, day-out; bad weather, good weather (for) 12 hours a day,” Plummer said. “The soldiers are really doing yeoman’s work.”

Col. Erik Fessenden, of the National Guard, said New Hampshire is one of the leading states in the nation with approximately one-third of its National Guard members mobilized for vaccine distribution and administration. He said some other states are now just mobilizing their National Guard units to assist with their distribution.

“Other states have sent contingents from their National Guard to visit our fixed sites and learn our (standard operating procedures),” Fessenden said. “I told them, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t been put in the fight yet.’ Here in New Hampshire, we went in heavy and early, and it’s paying off.”

Plummer said because of the National Guard’s efforts, in addition to civilian workers – primarily EMTs, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, as well as retirees from those professions – the amount of wasted leftover doses is less than 1% statewide.

“We try (avoid waste) with our scheduling, so it falls evenly,” Plummer said. “With that being said, sometimes you get an extra dose out of a vial, so someone comes with a spouse that had registered, which throws the numbers off a little bit. So, there could be a little bit of (leftover doses) at the end of the day, (approximately) three or five doses. We have a protocol in place where (the National Guard) calls the regional Public Health Network. They have people on their list they're doing clinics for and get moved up (who) are eligible.”

New Hampshire National Guard Maj. Jonathan Hesketh, who led Shaheen on her tour, said he was proud to take part in a mission where he and his fellow guardsmen and women worked in close concert with civilian volunteers.

“I’ve never had a mission where I get to work alongside with local fire departments, civilians, while working together with Air Force and Army,” Hesketh said. “It’s a real team effort.”

At The Music Hall: Funds to help arts, too

Later Friday, Shaheen met with arts organization leaders both in person and virtually at The Music Hall in Portsmouth to hear their questions and concerns about the arts funding in the recently passed American Rescue Plan.

 “Being on stage at The Music Hall is a reminder of how much we all depend on your venues for entertainment and our cultural life,” Shaheen said. “It’s been a real sacrifice for people not to be able to visit your venues. But there’s good news.”

She acknowledged that many details about the application process and timing aren’t clear yet, and that for venues and arts groups hurt by pandemic shutdowns, time is of the essence.

Tina Sawtelle, executive director of The Music Hall, said, “The delays are certainly a concern because the need to be able to plan is so critical for our business and being able to book artists and to know with more certainty that in fact we will have some additional funds to help us make our way through to 2022.”

“I think you’ll hear from many of us today that it’s going to take quite some time to rebuild our audiences,” Sawtelle said.

Dan O’Neil, co-owner of O’Neil Cinemas with locations in Epping and Londonderry, said his theaters have been closed for almost a year, shutting down last March 17, with no revenue coming in.

He raised concerns about the timing of signing up for both the current round of PPP and the SVOG,  and Robert Henson of the senator’s staff reassured him signing up for one doesn’t make you ineligible for the other. “That’s great to hear,” he said. “Because without it, we’ll be filing for bankruptcy.”

Courtney Perkins, executive director of the Prescott Park Arts Festival, said, “As we prepare in earnest for 2021with limited audience sizes of likely around 500 maximum, we’re looking at reduced revenue in every aspect of what we do, from suggested donations to concessions to ‘merch’ to sponsorships. While we’re thrilled to be reopening, 2021 is going to be an incredibly challenging for us. … Every challenge in COVID has felt just infinitely more difficult.”

“I can’t underscore enough how critical PPP and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant will be to our success and honestly to our long-term viability,” Perkins said.

Pontine Theatre co-directors Marguerite Mathews and Greg Gathers were  under the impression they were not eligible for the SVOG because their venue is a historic building, The Plains School. Henson  was able to clear that up for them, reassuring them they do qualify to apply.

“Wonderful, that’s such good news,” Mathews said. “We are very concerned about how to move forward into the new season. We are talking to our stakeholders who are saying ‘No, we’re not ready to come back to live performances.’ … I don’t know if they will be influenced by things moving along more quickly, but it’s very hard for us to plan.”

Brandon James and Ben Hart, co-artistic directors of the Seacoast Repertory Theatre, said even though they’ve been able to livestream performances and even open to 30% capacity audiences, the funding is vital.

“We’ve seen 30 to 50 people a night at this point, but that is nowhere near able to sustain us certainly. Like everyone else, we won’t survive if we don’t get the Shuttered Venues grant.”

Money to feed the hungry

Prior to visiting The Music Hall, Shaheen visited Red’s Good Vibes Food Truck in Dover. Red’s is a family-operated charity providing meals and groceries to vulnerable families living in the Seacoast. During her visit, Shaheen highlighted the new funding and nutritional assistance in the American Rescue Plan to help nonprofits like Red’s on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic put food on the table for families.


“The difference charities and nonprofits like Red’s Good Vibes have made during COVID-19 – helping to feed, house, clothe and provide medical care to our most vulnerable Granite Staters – cannot be overstated,” said Shaheen. “Despite the crucial role they have played on the frontlines of the pandemic and amid the surge in demand for their services, many charities and nonprofits are at risk of shutting down. I was glad to meet with Caitlin, Meghan and Mike (McGrath) this morning to hear more about their important work helping to feed Seacoast families during the pandemic, and I’ll make sure the robust assistance and resources the American Rescue Plan contains reaches nonprofits like Red’s who are lifelines in our communities.”