New Hampshire Republicans say they're stalling approval of funding in protest of President Joe Biden's new vaccine mandates, among other complaints.
Late last week, New Hampshire's top public health official blasted a GOP state lawmaker for spreading "misinformation" about COVID-19 vaccines, as Republicans on two different state panels blocked a request to appropriate millions of federal dollars to a program to increase vaccination rates.
Testifying before a meeting of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee on Sept. 17, New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette spoke of the need to get more New Hampshirites vaccinated to protect against the coronavirus delta variant surge.
"When we look at our hospitalizations, 90-plus percent of people that are hospitalized with serious illness are unvaccinated," Shibinette said. "That's a fact. It is what it is."
"That is in doubt," responded the committee's Republican chair, Rep. Ken Weyler, adding, "People I'm hearing from that are working in emergency rooms, saying that 90% of those admitted have had the shot."
"That is incorrect and that's misinformation," Shibinette said, to which Weyler replied, "I believe it's true."
Weyler went on to falsely claim the CDC and other "medical people" were intentionally withholding negative information about vaccines, baselessly suggesting that they impact fertility. COVID vaccines show no signs of impacting fertility or sexual function, multiple studies have shown; but in fact there is some evidence that COVID-19 infection can hamper male fertility.
Shibinette's testimony and the pushback from GOP lawmakers come as the New Hampshire health department is requesting that state officials approve $27 million in American Rescue Plan funding to support the state's vaccination efforts. That money, which has already been appropriated by the federal government, would go toward hiring for 13 new positions to promote vaccinations statewide, with a focus on those communities disproportionately impacted by COVID infections.
Sixty-eight percent of eligible Granite State residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, state data shows, slightly above the national vaccination rate but lagging behind several neighboring states. Despite early success at promoting vaccines, inoculation rates have stagnated over the past three months, and 1 in 5 New Hampshire adults said when asked for a recent poll that they won't get the shot. This finding has been borne out in state vaccine data: Since July, the number of New Hampshire residents who were fully vaccinated only increased by 1.7%, compared to a 40% increase from March through June.
Despite this, Republicans on the Executive Council, which works with the governor to manage state affairs, initially voted on Sept. 15 to block the requested funding, though they later decided to table the motion so they could revisit the matter in the future. In a party-line vote two days later, Republican legislators on the Joint Fiscal Committee also tabled a measure to approve the funding.
Beyond their unfounded concerns about the COVID vaccines' safety, state Republicans said they were stalling approval of the funding in protest of President Joe Biden's new vaccine mandates, which require businesses with more than 100 employees to require they be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing for the virus.
"I think there's a much bigger issue looming that's facing all of us and that is the collision between public-benefit medical care and individual privacy," state Sen. Bob Giuda told the New Hampshire Bulletin. "I see this [proposed vaccination effort and vaccine registry] as a process … for supporting what I consider to be an unconstitutional mandate for vaccines that leaves our citizens no option."
New Hampshire public health officials have said the requested funding has nothing to do with vaccine mandates and will be used to educate the public about the benefits of vaccination. Still, some GOP voters in the state have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to vaccine requirements, lashing out at Republican officials who say they share their views.
"You're yelling at the wrong people," House Speaker Sherman Packard told a crowd at a recent anti-mandate protest, as demonstrators shouted, "Do your job" and labeled the state's Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a "RINO," or "Republican in Name Only."
Sununu, a likely Senate hopeful for the 2022 cycle, has attempted to walk a tightrope between pushing back against Biden's mandates and promoting vaccinations. After Biden announced his new vaccine policies, Sununu released a statement charging:
Instead of working collaboratively with Governors across America to increase the vaccination rate, President Biden skips our weekly calls and issues overreaching mandates from Washington. I am working directly with my fellow Governors to see how best we can push back against this federal overreach. I am as pro-vaccine as it gets, but I do not support this mandate from Washington as it is not the answer.
More recently, however, Sununu said in a statement:
As elected officials, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards, and we absolutely cannot contribute to the spread of misinformation — it is dangerous and wrong. I fully support Commissioner Shibinette and the department's position in utilizing these funds, as their actions not only expand the availability of the COVID vaccine, but importantly are required for the state to be in compliance with laws and administrative rules passed by the Legislature.
Democrats in the Granite State have meanwhile worked to tie the slow-walked funding directly to Sununu, with New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley blasting the move as "another glaring example of Chris Sununu's failure to lead a successful vaccination campaign."
The issue is likely to resurface when members of the Executive Council meet again on Sept. 29 and the Joint Fiscal Committee of the state Legislature convenes on Oct. 1. Until then, the $27 million to promote vaccinations remains in limbo.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.