Two other nominations for the remaining seats on the Public Utilities Commission have been put before the Executive Council. (Getty Images)
This story was updated Sept. 17, 2021 at 5:30 p.m. with a statement from the governor.
Republican lawmakers’ anger over the Biden administration’s new vaccine mandate has put in jeopardy $27 million in federal pandemic relief to boost the state’s vaccination efforts.
As the Executive Council did Wednesday, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee on Friday voted along party lines to table a request from the Department of Health and Human Services to use the federal money for 13 new positions that would include a public health program manager and 12 workers to promote the vaccine, address the public’s concerns about it, and help over 500 vaccine providers understand and comply with the state’s relatively new vaccine registry.
“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,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican. “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.”
State leaders from both parties have voiced opposition to a state vaccine mandate, and a new state law prohibits state and local governments from implementing one. The federal mandate however will require some Granite Staters to be vaccinated because it applies to federal workers, most health care providers, and employers with 100 or more workers. Only the last group will have the option of frequent testing instead.
The opposition came immediately after the mandate was announced, and it’s been fierce.
House Republicans held an anti-mandate rally Tuesday that didn’t end as planned when the crowd turned against lawmakers, saying they were doing too little to block the mandate. House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, announced Friday he has proposed legislation to prohibit the state from enforcing the Biden administration’s mandate.
Senate Republicans shared a letter they sent to the federal delegation Friday demanding they oppose the mandate, predicting the state’s health care workforce shortage will worsen as workers quit rather than get vaccinated. Senate Democrats responded quickly, accusing Republicans of promoting an “anti-public health” message. “There is absolutely no reason to fight against vaccination efforts beyond scoring political points with the extreme far right,” said Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy.
Friday’s Fiscal Committee meeting was not an easy one for the Department of Health and Human Services.
First, members from both parties blasted Commissioner Lori Shibinette for submitting financial requests with too little information. Members of the Executive Council voiced similar complaints Wednesday, including when they tabled the $27 million for vaccine outreach.
“I think the fundamental point that’s been brought up here is communication, and the communication has been limited,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat on the Fiscal Committee. “That’s not good government, that’s not good public policy, that’s not good for anything.”
Shibinette said the speed in which federal pandemic aid comes to the state makes it challenging to provide the committee, which meets monthly, timely details.
Then, in an exchange between Shibinette and Committee Chairman Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, Weyler claimed the COVID-19 vaccine is so ineffective that the majority of COVID-19 hospital patients are vaccinated. (Scientific evidence has disproven that and shown that nearly all COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths, and cases are among unvaccinated people.)
“That is incorrect, and that’s misinformation,” Shibinette said. “And that is the problem that we are having increasing our vaccination rate: spreading misinformation about the COVID vaccine.”
Reached after the meeting, Gov. Chris Sununu backed Shibinette and condemned Weyler’s comments.
“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,” he said in a written statement. “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.”
The department’s $27 million vaccine outreach plan will remain in limbo until both the Executive Council and Fiscal Committee take the request off the table and vote.
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