Freedom from vaccine mandate draws debate

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Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·5 min read
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Apr. 14—CONCORD — A bill to expand the rights of those who refuse to get vaccinations sparked a vigorous debate before a state Senate committee Wednesday.

Parent Lisa Dean urged the Senate Health and Human Services Committee to embrace the bill for individuals to be free from "threat or compulsion" to accept any "medical intervention, including immunization."

"An injection can't ever be taken back, ever. We know existing conditions. We know our health better than the government," Dean told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

"New Hampshire is Live Free or Die, not Live Free, Inject and Die."

Dr. Gary Sobelson, a family physician in Concord, said the New Hampshire Medical Society strongly opposed this bill and warned it would erode trust in vaccines.

"The breadth of this bill, in and of itself, should concern all of you," Sobelson said.

"This will create a major limitation on our ability to manage a crisis."

The testimony seemed to become more heated and emotional, coming a day after Gov. Chris Sununu announced New Hampshire was joining a nationwide pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because six women in the U.S. had developed serious blood clots after getting the shot.

Currently, New Hampshire adults can, for medical or religious reasons, refuse to receive any vaccination.

Gov. Chris Sununu said he opposes any attempt to require COVID-19 vaccination and is against a so-called "vaccine passport" issued by government to grant access to only those who show proof they have received a shot.

Push came before COVID-19

But Rep. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton, said he took up this cause before COVID-19, when the Department of Health and Human Services two years ago pushed through a rule change to compel foster parents to get certain immunizations without exceptions.

"I felt that was horrific and would impinge on personal freedom and reduced the pool of qualified foster parents," said Lang, chief sponsor of this bill (HB 220).

Dr. Beth Daly, director of the state's infectious disease control bureau, said the bill could put health care workers at risk and prevent employers from imposing restrictions on private property.

"We believe that under existing law people already have a choice to be vaccinated," Daly said. "Their limitation is only if they want to participate in activities where their decision not to be vaccinated will put other individuals at risk.

"We do believe there are potentially harmful impacts from this legislation."

Daly and other New Hampshire medical leaders convinced Lang to amend his bill and permit vaccines to be required in some cases.

The revised bill allows vaccines to be required of anyone going to a school or a child care center and lets employers require vaccines for workers where there is a direct threat of infecting the public or patients at risk of complications from a viral infection.

Lang noted this bill, if it was already law, would have prevented the University of New Hampshire from requiring proof of a vaccine to attend college graduations later this spring.

Speakers across U.S.

The online hearing drew medical experts from across the country offering widely divergent views.

Dr. Peter McCullough of Texas A&M Hospital in Dallas said 2,342 people have died after receiving a COVID vaccine, compared to 20 to 30 after a flu shot.

"To be coerced, pressured or fear reprisal for turning down any vaccination would be immoral, unethical and illegal," McCullough said.

Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University said the COVID-19 vaccine is "one of the great inventions in science."

But he said younger people who don't take it and become asymptomatic are at very low risk of infecting others.

"We should not create vaccine hesitancy by mandating vaccines," Bhattacharya said.

Sobelson dismissed the claims from "out-of-state physicians," saying medical complications likely caused the deaths McCullough listed.

Daly went even further.

"You heard a lot of misinformation that was just provided to you," Daly began.

"I am not aware of anyone in New Hampshire who has died from getting a vaccine in my 17 years with the department."

Sununu has said a few New Hampshire long-term care residents who had previously had COVID-19 died after getting one of two vaccine doses.

With the changes, a House committee endorsed Lang's bill, 18-1, and the House approved it on a voice vote without debate.

Senate giving much closer look

The more-than-two-hour hearing in the Senate revealed the bill will be subject to more scrutiny in the upper chamber.

"Is this a problem in New Hampshire that we are seeking to solve in this bill?" asked Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton.

Deana Pollard-Sacks, a law professor at Texas Southern University, backed the bill.

She urged senators to change it to permit a mandate for vaccination or other life-saving "inventions" for children even if their parents object.

"The bill doesn't address when a minor can be compelled to get some medical treatment or will die. Otherwise that could be challenged in court," Pollard-Sacks warned.

"You can't put children at risk."

At the close of the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, asked Lang if he would accept restricting the bill to the COVID-19 vaccine.

"What about coming back to fight this issue for all other vaccines another day?" Bradley offered.

Lang answered, "I'm a big believer in taking what I can get, but this will mean we have to come back to this again and again."

The committee must make a recommendation on the bill by May 13.

klandrigan@unionleader.com