Democrats say governor, administration not doing enough to support vaccination effort

By: - August 5, 2021 4:57 pm
Chris Sununu stands at a lectern with an American flag behind him

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Sununu said the site of this week’s Executive Council meeting was “chosen due to its accessibility, security, and venue size, allowing for public access while also ensuring a safe and orderly democratic process.” (Courtesy)

With vaccination rates lagging and COVID-19 cases climbing in New Hampshire, a group of Democratic lawmakers and public health advocates called on Gov. Chris Sununu to step up the state’s push to get more residents immunized. Promoting videos of himself and public health officials urging residents to get vaccinated is not enough, they said. 

“In addition to people who are reluctant to be vaccinated, there are Granite Staters who still struggle to access the vaccine, particularly those who are low income, disabled, and those who live in rural areas of the state,” Sen. Cindy Rosenwald of Nashua said at a Thursday press conference. “But Gov. Sununu and his administration appear no longer interested in having a role to play in promoting vaccination rates among any of these groups.”

New Hampshire’s COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising enough that state epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan told a group of health care workers Thursday that the state is at the “threshold” of moving from “moderate” community transmission to “substantial” transmission. New Hampshire has an average of 123 new cases a day, the third lowest seven-day average of new cases in the country, behind Vermont and Maine, Chan said. On Wednesday, the state reported 232 new cases, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Nearly all the new cases are among unvaccinated people, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Since Jan. 21, when the state started tracking breakthrough cases, unvaccinated people accounted for nearly 98.5 percent of the 40,446 positive cases, the department said. Of the 342 deaths since then, 10 were vaccinated people. 

In the last several weeks, vaccinations have slowed. Thursday, 61 percent of those eligible were fully vaccinated, according to the COVID-19 dashboard. That puts New Hampshire eighth in the nation for vaccinations, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. The rest of New England has the top five spots.

The Democrats focused on New Hampshire’s placement among its New England peers at their press conference.

When asked what the governor should do to boost the vaccination rate, they said bring vaccines to rural areas, reconvene the “reopening” advisory group that included medical experts, and address the spread of vaccine and coronavirus misinformation by vaccine opponents. The state’s new mobile vaccine van is available upon request, and more than 130 groups have submitted requests, DHHS said. The lawmakers said it should be better publicized.

They suggested Sununu start a door-to-door vaccine campaign, something Sununu and Republican lawmakers oppose.

Sununu’s spokesman, Ben Vihstadt, said the governor has urged residents to get vaccinated since vaccines became available; his most visible advocacy had come during the weekly televised COVID-19 updates he held until recently.

“These gimmicky political press conferences do absolutely nothing to convince vaccine-hesitant individuals to take the vaccine,” Vihstadt said of the Democrats’ event. “And (they) actually harm the state’s nonstop efforts to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Laura Montenegro, DHHS spokeswoman, said the department is encouraging people with questions and concerns about the vaccine to talk with their medical provider. “We have been working with our health care providers and community partners to provide reliable information and to make COVID-19 vaccination very accessible at more than 500 locations statewide,” she said. “Additionally, to date, we have facilitated more than 700 equity clinics, which include the newly implemented mobile vaccine van, to ensure everyone has access to the vaccine.”

When asked what they are doing to promote vaccines, none of the lawmakers or others at the press conference said they are going door-to-door as they suggested Sununu do. 

Rep. Jeffrey Salloway of Lee said he is promoting the vaccine on the town’s social media pages and urging constituents to get vaccinated when they call with questions. Rich DiPentima, former chief of communicable diseases and epidemiology for the state, is writing letters to the editor and working with city officials to encourage vaccinations. Mindi Messmer said she and the New Hampshire Science and Public Health task force, a group she co-founded with health and science experts, are sharing research on the vaccine with schools, as well as guidance for reopening.

A new state law that prohibits state, county, and local governments from requiring most employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine exempts health care workers at the state hospital and county nursing homes. Asked if they support a vaccine mandate for those workers, Rosenwald said Sununu would have to lead a statewide coordinated effort to get all on board. Otherwise, she said, workers opposed to a vaccine would leave their jobs and go to a neighboring county or health care practice. 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.