Testimony on legislation related to vaccine mandates reveals the widest of divides

By: - January 31, 2022 5:48 am
A nurse inserts a needle into a vial

One bill would guarantee workers compensation for employees if they suffer an “adverse reaction” within 14 days of getting a mandated COVID-19 vaccine. (Monty Rakusen | Getty Images)

Lawmakers took several hours of testimony last week on nine bills seeking protections for employees facing a vaccine mandate by providing expanded unemployment benefits and workers compensation coverage, and allowing them to refuse to take a COVID-19 test.

Testimony was impassioned and deeply divided.

Health care leaders and public health organizations were unified in their opposition, warning the bills threatened the health and safety of not just employees but also anyone who shopped in their stores, ate at their restaurants, or sought care at their hospitals.

The bills’ supporters often made their case with references to the state constitution, remarks taken out of context, citations of studies not read, information misrepresented as fact, and events linked without evidence. 

“My boyfriend’s best friend’s girlfriend,” began Kendra Goodwin of Sandown, “was 32 years old and eight months pregnant. She got her vaccine. She died a week later in her sleep and she had a brain full of blood clots. What 32-year-old gets a brain full of blood clots?”

During a different hearing, Rep. Barbara Comtois, a Center Barnstead Republican, told a House committee she sponsored House Bill 1490 because she objects to anyone having to show a vaccination card or wear a mask to get into restaurants, movie theaters, and concert venues. A business that requested either would be guilty of discrimination under her bill. 

In defense of the legislation Comtois pointed to the passing of her sister in law, who she said died of a heart attack 48 hours after being vaccinated, and a study she said connected the vaccine to Bell’s palsy, a most often temporary weakness or paralysis of facial muscles linked to underlying conditions of diabetes and high blood pressure. 

Asked by a member of the House Judiciary Committee for the study, Comtois hesitated. 

“I don’t know if the study is actually public. It was through something in our county,” she said. Pressed, Comtois acknowledged she had not seen or read the study. “It was conveyed to another representative and told to me,” she said.

Compensation

Two bills seek financial protections for employees who are required by their employer to get any vaccine, in one case, and a COVID-19 shot in another.

House Bill 1377, also sponsored by Comtois, would guarantee expansive unemployment benefits to anyone fired for refusing to comply with a vaccine mandate. Under her bill, the worker would get the standard 26 weeks of unemployment and an additional six months of benefits.

One of the bill’s supporters, Russan Chester, said employees need that protection because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list the vaccines’ active and inactive ingredients, information employees need to assess their health risks. The CDC site does include both types of ingredients on its website.

Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner of the Department of Employment Security, said if Comtois’ bill is enacted, the state and businesses could lose millions in federal money because federal requirements prohibit states from providing only one group of people a certain benefit.

To date, 134 people have cited refusing a vaccine mandate when applying for unemployment benefits, 92 of them health care workers, Lavers said. The department denied 90 percent of the health care workers’ claims and 70 percent of all claims. (In deciding which claims to pay, the department considered whether an employer offered the employee an alternative to vaccination and the nature of the worker’s job.)

Under Comtois’ bill, the employers of those 92 health care workers alone would have paid $1.2 million in unemployment costs, Lavers said.

Paula Minnehan of the New Hampshire Hospital Association urged the committee to reject the bill, saying hospitals have long required employees to be vaccinated against other communicable and deadly diseases, including mumps, measles, rubella, chickenpox, and the flu, while providing the required medical and religious exemptions. 

“We’ve heard from many health care workers who support the vaccine requirement to protect their health and that of patients,” Minnehan said, adding that the vast majority of workers are vaccinated. 

House Bill 1352, sponsored by Rep. Gregg Hough, a Laconia Republican, would guarantee employees workers compensation if they suffer an “adverse reaction” within 14 days of getting a mandated COVID-19 vaccine. His bill does not define “adverse reaction” or say how a connection would be evaluated and confirmed.

Existing law already allows workers who are injured after complying with a workplace requirement, including a mandated flu vaccine, to apply for workers compensation, but unlike what Hough’s bill proposes, the employer may challenge it.

In defense of his bill, Hough pointed to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, referred to as VAERS, saying it showed 55 people in New Hampshire died after getting a COVID-19 vaccine within the first seven months of the shots being available. 

However, Hough, like others who cite the database, did not tell the committee that the reports, which can be filed by anyone, are not investigated. The database warns users that the information is “incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable,” and cannot prove a connection between the vaccine and symptoms or death.

Among the reports of Granite Staters who received the vaccine and later died, several were over age 70, were living in long-term care settings, had tested positive for COVID-19, and had pre-existing conditions. A report on one person begins with “unsure if related to the vaccine.”

More exemptions

Currently, employers who mandate a vaccine must consider workers’ requests for medical and religious exemptions. They are allowed to require those who are exempted to comply with other safety protocols, such as regular testing, masking at work, or working remotely. 

Rep. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, wants to add a “conscientious objector” exemption from mandates for all vaccines, not just the COVID-19 vaccine. House Bill 1210 would also require an exemption request be granted without the evaluation allowed now. 

Lang said he believes employers who once granted medical and religious exemptions freely are not doing the same for their COVID-19 vaccine mandates. 

“I go to the New Hampshire Constitution because it’s one of my favorite documents to read,” Lang said, “… and it basically says, in order to be in a polite society, we have to give up some of our rights. However, the constitution goes on.”

The more important passage comes later, he said, and guarantees a “right to conscience.” For Lang, that translates into a conscientious objection exemption.

House Bill 1358, sponsored by New Boston Republican Rep. William Foster, would extend the same exemptions to testing when they are required as an alternative to a vaccine mandate. He said being required to insert a swab into a nostril violates Article 5 of the state constitution, which says no person should be “hurt or molested.”

Among the many who spoke in favor of the vaccine exemption bill was Ken Irving, who said he believes the COVID-19 vaccine is unsafe. He said Dr. Anthony Fauci recently shared the same belief on a New York Times podcast. 

Speaking of the COVID-19 vaccine, Fauci said “immunity is waning to the point that you’re seeing more and more people getting breakthrough infections, and more and more of those people who are getting breakthrough infections are winding up in the hospital.”

Irving did not share with the committee, however, that Fauci was talking about people who had been vaccinated but not boosted, or that Fauci said the waning immunity is the reason to be boosted.

“I think,” Fauci said, “that the boosting is gonna be an absolutely essential component of our response, not a bonus, not a luxury, but an absolute essential part of the program.”

Among those opposing the bill was Kate Frey of New Futures. 

“An objection based on conscientious or philosophic reasons that would essentially allow an easy opt-out to anyone would reverse the progress New Hampshire has made in facing this pandemic and other previously eradicated diseases,” she said. She cited a study by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. 

“The study demonstrates that the easier it is to receive an exemption… the number of exemptions increases (and) the risk of the vaccine-preventable disease also increases,” she said.

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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.

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