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N.H. lawmakers’ spread of COVID-19 misinformation shows no sign of stopping

A photo of people standing in lines holding signs facing Main Street at the State House in Concord.
Dan Barrick
Anti-COVID mitigation activists gathered outside the State House in fall of 2021.

As Speaker Sherman Packard testified before the House Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday on his proposal to bar the state from enforcing federal vaccine mandates, his comments seemed like an effort to establish the Republican-led House’s doctrine on vaccine policy:

“We reject mandates, but we work to accommodate those people who would have a legitimate reason, whether it be religious, medical, or actual fear of this vaccine,” Packard said. “I know there are some people out there who have legitimate fear of this vaccine.”

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Packard didn’t specify what he meant by “legitimate fear,” but reaching a universally accepted definition – on nearly anything COVID-related – may be a tall order in a political atmosphere where misinformation, disinformation and outlandish speculation about the coronavirus and COVID vaccines often flow freely – including in legislative hearings.

The public isn’t the only source of speculative and inaccurate information these days. It’s also frequently coming from lawmakers themselves. It’s part of a conspicuous overlapping this legislative session — on COVID as well as other issues — between the work of advocacy and that of legislating. Experienced lawmakers, past and present and on both sides of the aisle, agree this approach and the tenor of deliberations on these issues marks a break with the way the House has long operated.

Lawmakers’ perception vs. the reality of health officials

A case in point came moments after Packard left the hearing room. Kate Horgan, who represents the New Hampshire Association of Counties, was telling lawmakers that counties prefer to have the flexibility to set their own workplace policies, which have included requiring vaccines for workers at some county nursing homes.

Rep. Leah Cushman, a Republican from Weare and a nurse by trade who sits on the Health and Human Services Committee, was quick to respond.

The freshman lawmaker has sponsored multiple COVID-related bills -- including a proposal to authorize pharmacists to hand out ivermectin, which has not been approved by the CDC as a COVID treatment and could in fact be dangerous in large doses. Cushman argued that county-level vaccine requirements have prompted an exodus of nursing home workers.

Horgan refuted that claim.

“I will say the comments that you made about losing staff has not been the experience of the counties that have put vaccination policies in,” Horgan said, explaining that fewer than 10 workers had left nursing homes after mandates were put in place.

But Cushman — who in addition to being a lawmaker and a nurse, is also a coordinator for New Hampshire Health Care Workers for Freedom, an anti-vaccine-mandate group — pressed the point, citing job postings for open nursing shifts at the Merrimack County Nursing Home.

“So I would argue that you still have a shortage, and had your policy not been in place, many nurses that work for agencies would be coming and filling that need,” Cushman said.

Horgan told the committee that filling every open shift was a long-standing difficulty.

“We had a shortage before the vaccine policy was in place,” Horgan explained.

Advocacy around COVID blurs lines between “activist” and “lawmaker”

In any legislative setting, the line separating advocacy and policymaking isn’t always bright. That may be particularly true in a citizen legislature like New Hampshire’s.

Another lawmaker on Cushman’s committees with a foot planted in both worlds is fellow freshman Rep. Melissa Blasek of Merrimack.

She’s the executive director of RebuildNH, a non-profit that has been one of the loudest opponents of the state’s response to the pandemic, and she has sponsored more than a dozen bills dealing with COVID. Those include proposals barring public and private schools from requiring mask use, making immunization status a protected class for discrimination purposes, and requiring employers to assume liability for any damages that resulted from medical mandates.

Every week, Blasek posts videosto RebuildNH’s website, highlighting pending bills, policies and directing people to show up and testify at hearings.

“There are vaccine bills all day long,” Blasek notes at one point in the most recent update. “Hopefully we can work some more magic this week.”

In a volunteer Legislature like New Hampshire’s, those drawn to serve often get into politics via issue advocacy. But when it comes to COVID policy this session, the overlap between advocacy and policymaking has been conspicuous and a departure from the norm.

Democratic Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham has served in the House for two decades, and was quick to acknowledge she too works with advocates on issues she cares about: “But when I speak, I speak as a legislator,” Smith said.

“There are people in the House who are not doing that,” she said. “Some of them are doing that because they don’t know any better, and some of them are doing it because they really don’t believe in government.”

Former lawmaker Neal Kurk of Weare, a Republican who for years has championed issues around personal and medical privacy, participated in some of the recent hearings dealing with the state’s vaccine registry. He said, from what he sees in Concord these days, the debate over these issues and the sort of people drawn to serve in the New Hampshire House have changed.

“They are very agenda-driven,” Kurk said. “It’s almost like there is a religious component to this. Not with respect to God, but with respect to the rigidity of belief and the unwillingness to compromise.”

Right now, with dozens of bills pertaining to vaccines, masks, and other COVID policy still pending in the House, the need to compromise may feel distant, particularly for advocates bent on securing a greater recognition of what they refer to as “bodily autonomy.” And to hear organizers behind many of these proposals, that’s not likely to change, nor is the approach.

“I know committees respond to input,” said Andrew Manuse, a former Republican lawmaker who co-founded RebuildNH.

Manuse was quick to add that he believes Republican leaders have already responded.

“Speaker Packard clearly got the message, and I’m very appreciative of that,” Manuse said. “I’d like the Senate and the governor to come along for the ride.”

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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