Debunked information dominates public testimony as lawmakers consider vaccine-related bills

By: - January 17, 2022 5:42 am
A blank COVID-19 vaccination card rests on top of a protective face mask. Photogrpahed with a very shallow depth of field.

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat and prime sponsor of Senate Bill 319 mandating an insurance benefit for vaccinated workers, considered her bill a “gentle” free-market approach to increasing vaccination rates and thereby lowering hospitalization rates, and decreasing health care costs. (Getty Images)

This story was updated Jan. 17, 2022 at 10 a.m. to correct the name of the federal agency that pays hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients and again at 10:35 a.m. to clarify that one person falsely claimed most people hospitalized with COVID-19 are vaccinated.

COVID-19 is driving up new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. It’s also continuing to drive debate in the State House, and public testimony so far has been dominated by information that’s been debunked by scientists and data from hospitals. 

That was the case Thursday, the second week of the session, during public hearings on proposed legislation that would require an insurance benefit for vaccinated employees and disallow schools from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine.

You can develop a rash and restart your period after 22 years just by sitting next to a vaccinated person, a debunked claim, one woman told lawmakers during a public hearing Thursday. Most people hospitalized with COVID-19 are vaccinated, said another, contrary to New Hampshire hospital reports. The vaccine doesn’t prevent transmission, said a third. (Medical experts disagree and note that no vaccine prevents infection but is instead necessary to reduce the risk of serious illness.) A fourth said hospitals are incentivized to hospitalize patients for COVID-19 because they pocket $100,000 for each patient they admit with COVID-19. (Medicare pays hospitals 20 percent more than standard rates, which fall short of hospitals’ expenses, for COVID-19 patients, but there is not a $100,00 payment or evidence that hospitals are intentionally inflating patient counts for financial gain.)

None of that is persuasive to the anti-vaccine community, because they don’t trust the sources.

“I’m beginning to see that too many in our state are looking to the scientists and the lobbyists, and the good speakers, and making irrational decisions based on that,” said Russan Chester, who testified on both bills, referring to mandates and vaccination policies. 

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to hear from people, including those in their own chambers, whose beliefs and opinions fall far outside the mainstream and have been discredited. 

During a debate on abortion legislation in 2012, one lawmaker claimed that women who take birth control pills increase the chances their male children will develop prostate cancer. After the Boston Marathon bombing, one lawmaker tried to convince colleagues the government was behind the attack. Both comments made national news but gained no traction.

Former House Speaker Donna Sytek, a Nashua Republican, recalled intense public hearings over building the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.

“There were people who would trot out their arguments. Radiation will kill you. Radiation is scary stuff,” she said. “Engineers would get up and explain the facts from an engineering viewpoint. Usually the side of science won.” 

COVID-19 has reset the scale. 

Chester’s skepticism and rejection of scientists and lobbyists representing the public health and hospitals interests is not only unshakable but shared by enough lawmakers to have influenced the outcome of legislation and acceptance of federal pandemic aid.

During debate on a “medical freedom” bill last year prohibiting vaccine mandates for state and public school employees, a New York doctor testified that vaccines are medically harmful and another from Texas, who said he cured his own COVID-19 with a hydroxychloroquine cocktail, told senators COVID-19 is not contagious or killing as many people as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

And it nearly derailed $27 million in federal contracts for the state’s vaccination effort after anti-vaccine and anti-mandate protesters halted an Executive Council meeting. 

New Hampshire was alone in rejecting the money; the Executive Council later reversed course and accepted the money – at a meeting where the contracts were not on the public agenda. 

Even Gov. Chris Sununu has complained during his weekly COVID-19 updates that misinformation is keeping people from getting vaccinated, and linked it Wednesday to legislative efforts to make it harder for the state to gather vaccination records with an opt-in, rather than opt-out, registry.

That will continue this session, as lawmakers work through more than 30 vaccine-related bills, if Thursday’s public hearings are any indication.

‘Wellness incentive’

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat and prime sponsor of Senate Bill 319 mandating an insurance benefit for vaccinated workers, considered her bill a “gentle” free-market approach to increasing vaccination rates and thereby lowering hospitalization rates, and decreasing health care costs.

The bill would require insurance companies to provide employees covered by group plans, not those with individual plans, a “wellness incentive” to encourage them to be vaccinated. It’s not unlike the $300 paid to state workers covered under the state’s health plan for certain “health reward activities” that include a flu shot

Rosenwald’s bill would allow insurance providers to decide the structure and value of the incentive within a federal limit. The federal rules also require the incentive be provided to people medically unable to get a vaccine, and insurance cannot be denied to those who choose not to get the vaccine.

In her argument for incentivizing voluntary vaccines, Rosenwald said Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center calculated the average cost of a COVID-19 ICU patient, 71 percent of whom require ventilators and a stay longer than four days, at $128,000. 

“Any reduction in the number of very sick COVID patients through increased voluntary vaccination would save money,” Rosenwald told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. That would also translate, she said, into lower health care costs for insurers, and thereby lower premiums for workers. 

The bill’s opponents saw it as a bribe, and one woman, Priscilla Morrill of Peterborough, said the vaccine is so ineffective that 53 percent of hospitalized patients in New Hampshire have gotten the vaccine. According to hospital reports, that’s not accurate. As of Thursday 17 percent of hospitalized patients are partially vaccinated and 21 percent are fully vaccinated and boosted. Nearly 45 percent are unvaccinated, and vaccination status for 17 percent is unknown. More than 70 percent of ICU patients are unvaccinated, according to hospitals.

“There was no reason for opposition on my bill. It’s not a mandate,” Rosenwald said after the hearing. “I don’t know that it will fall victim to misinformation, but I hope it doesn’t fall victim to political talking points. I hope it is considered as a market-based (option) that is voluntary and allows consumers to make an informed choice.”

Rosenwald doesn’t discount their conviction but has come to believe arguing logic is likely not productive.

“I feel bad for those people. Their fear is so real,” she said. “I can say it’s based on faulty information, but it doesn’t matter because it’s their emotion and it’s real. They’ve picked and chosen studies based on what they want to find, so, I don’t know how you get them to just breathe and take a step back and see no one is trying to hurt you.”

Prohibiting COVID-19 vaccine for students

Last session, arguments against requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for school attendance were hypothetical because there was no effort to mandate them and the Department of Health and Human Services said it had no plans to do so. 

House Bill 1633 would change that, mandating the vaccine for students in school and child care. 

Leane Romano told the committee there were already nearly 100 vaccines required to attend school in New Hampshire (there are fewer than 10), said other states have “detainment camps” for unvaccinated people (a myth that originated on a satire website, according to fact checkers), and claimed that 400 young athletes have died from the vaccine. (Fact checkers ruled this false, saying there is no evidence to support the claim.)

Romano also disputed hospitals’ reports of packed emergency rooms overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients because she waited only 45 minutes in a Manchester emergency room on New Year’s Day. 

Kelly Potenza also cited a personal experience for her claims that the vaccine, not delta or omicron, are the variants making children sick. She pointed to her daughter’s basketball teammates.

“There are three girls that their parents got them injected. Guess how many times they played since they’ve had that experimental injection? Zero,” she said. “Guess who’s sick right now? Those girls.”

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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.