The Bulletin Board

Lawmakers want state to publicly track number of COVID cases among House members

By: - October 12, 2021 2:47 pm
The State House dome behind a tree branch

Cinde Warmington, a Democrat, was the lone councilor to vote against Goldner’s confirmation as PUC chairman. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The state reports COVID-19 infections by town, county, long-term care facilities, and schools. A group of Democratic lawmakers would like to add the Legislature to that list. Doing so would allow lawmakers and the public to better assess their risk of exposure, they said. They see another benefit, too.

“I think one of the advantages of having that data would be that if we do see an upward trend within the House, that might serve as motivation for the speaker to then allow us to begin meeting remotely again,” said Rep. Jerry Knirk, a Freedom Democrat. It’s a case Democrats have been making, including via a federal lawsuit, since before the end of this year’s session, during which lawmakers, state agency heads, and the public could testify and watch meetings remotely.

It’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“It is easy for the other side to say what is best and what they would do differently, except when given the chance they did nothing,” House Speaker Sherman Packard said in a written statement. “When House Democrats were in the majority, there were no COVID-19 guidelines or mitigation practices in place and they stopped all committee work. House Republicans … put risk mitigation measures in place so we could continue to work for the people of New Hampshire. While our counterparts continue to hide behind their social media accounts, and skirt their legislative responsibilities, Republicans will continue working for the people who elected us.”

He said leadership has asked people to stay home if they experience symptoms, strongly recommended mask use, and provided air purifiers throughout the State House and Legislative Office Building. They are also working to arrange desks in the committee room to accommodate physical distancing for members, he said.

Knirk made his comments at a press conference Tuesday where he and three other Democrats, including Rep. Bill Marsh of Wolfeboro, formerly a Republican, voiced support for $27 million in federal vaccine outreach contracts that may see a vote at Wednesday’s Executive Council meeting. 

The contracts have the support of Gov. Chris Sununu but critics, including some in his party, have raised concerns about legitimacy of the vaccine and the state’s obligations to comply with federal mandates if the money is accepted. Rep. Lucy Weber, a Walpole Democrat, said the “information crisis” they’ve created has put public health at risk. Marsh agreed. “People need interaction with medical experts that they trust, instead of propaganda that they read on Facebook, or distributed via email, to make informed decisions,” he said.

“These monies will help return us to normal by decreasing cases and increasing the percent of the population that’s fully vaccinated,” Marsh continued. “As elected representatives, it is our duty to listen to the experts and stand up the infrastructure to protect public health accordingly. We all want to keep our economy open and our kids in school. We are only going to accomplish that by increasing vaccination rates.”

Publicly sharing the number of new COVID-19 cases within the Legislature – broadly, without personally identifying anyone – is also valuable information, they said. “I see no reason why we could not have a similar report for the 400 members of the House, which would in no way release sensitive personal medical information,” Weber said. 

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, pushed back against the idea.

“The Democrats’ fustian can only be reconciled within the context of blind authoritarian indoctrination,” he said in a statement. “It is ironic that these representatives have claimed to not want to invade people’s privacy but openly advocate for policies to force employees to be vaccinated or lose their jobs.”

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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.