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N.H. House Republicans unite to send COVID legislation to the Senate

Republicans in the New Hampshire House united this week to pass multiple bills dealing with COVID-19, with a focus on prioritizing individual rights and limiting the authority of entities to compel adherence to public health policies.

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The action by the House moves the debate over COVID policy to the state Senate, which has so far heard far fewer bills related to the pandemic than the House. In fact, questions of masking, vaccines, and the reach of government have been on the front burner for House lawmakers all year.

“I think we all know that last fall, a lot of bills were filed because we weren’t sure what this year would bring,” Republican Rep. Erica Layon of Derry noted before the House voted through a bill that would bar businesses from requiring customers to prove their vaccination status.

That measure was just one of many inspired by the pandemic on the docket in the House this week.

The most high-profile bill, sponsored by House Speaker Sherman Packard, would bar the state from enforcing federal vaccine mandates. Before that proposal was voted through along near party lines. Rep. Mark Pearson of Hampstead, who is chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, asked colleagues to recognize there is a long tradition of states bucking federal laws.

“In the 19th century, some northern states passed individual liberty laws, which made it illegal for citizens of their states to help enforce the Fugitive Slave Act,” Pearson said.

The House also voted to outlaw mask mandates in public schools (H.B. 1131), and to give the Legislature final say over any decision by the state’s health commissioner to add a vaccine to the list of required inoculations for children (H.B. 1379).

Lawmakers also backed a bill that would create a “right of conscience” (H.B. 1210) that would force any entity, public or private, that receives public funding to allow workers or students to opt-out of vaccine requirements for any sincerely held beliefs, not simply for religious or health reasons.

At the same time, the House voted to clear the way for pharmacists to dispense Ivermectin via standing order, the way birth control and Narcan are in New Hampshire. Ivermectin is an antiparasitic drug popular with vaccine-skeptics as a COVID treatment but not recommended by the FDA.

Prior to that 183-159 vote to send the bill to the Senate, Rep. Jerry Knirk, a Democrat from Freedom and retired surgeon, argued that the research doesn’t support making Ivermectin easier for people to obtain to treat COVID-19.

“This is not to say ivermectin isn’t good; it is excellent for the treatment of parasitic worms,” Knirk said.

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