N.H. delegation slams council over COVID-19 grant vote

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, bottom right, and Rep. Chris Pappas, center right, both D-N.H., join with health care professionals on a video conference to condemn the Executive Council for rejecting $27 million in federal grants for COVID-19 vaccines.  

New Hampshire’s all-Democratic congressional delegation called “reckless,” “dangerous,” and “shameful” the Republican-led Executive Council’s decision to turn down $27 million in federal grants for the COVID-19 vaccine.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said there were no other federal grant sources for these immunization efforts, but she said her colleagues would keep searching for them.

“Now it’s time for the governor and the Republican executive councilors to do their jobs and protect the health and safety of our state,” Shaheen said during a virtual news conference on Monday.

The council turned down these grants from the Centers for Disease Control last Oct. 13 after a few hundred protestors turned out to oppose the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Last Friday, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee unanimously voted to accept a $4.7 million grant from the federal American Rescue Plan to do some of the work halted by the council’s decision.

The smaller grant item now goes before the Executive Council at its meeting Wednesday in Concord.

“This vote by the Executive Council is reckless, it put lives at risk and it is hurting our economic recovery efforts,” Sen. Maggie Hassan said. “I am very concerned that the Republicans in Concord are playing politics with people’s health.”

Rep. Chris Pappas said the council vote was based on the false claim that taking the money would require New Hampshire to enforce the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate.

Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General John Formella had advised the council there were no such strings attached.

“You have to trust the experts and you have to have a clear-eyed view of the implications of voting no on a contract that is put before you,” said Pappas, who served on the council before he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

The earlier council vote was 4-1, with all Republicans against the contract and Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, voting for it.

Vaccine outreach

GOP councilors also had questioned spending so much additional federal money on vaccine outreach when the vaccination rate in New Hampshire hasn’t changed significantly in recent months.

New Hampshire’s vaccination rate puts it in the top dozen of states, but last in New England.

Jim Potter, executive vice president of the New Hampshire Medical Society, said he’s concerned 30% of new infections are among people under 18.

The state’s health care system is already overtaxed, and Potter feared the state wouldn’t be ready to administer vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 once the Biden administration approves them.

“It is clear that they do not have the resources, they are understaffed, they are already financially strained and overworked,” Potter said.

It’s likely parents will face delays in getting their children vaccinated, he said.

In recent weeks, New Hampshire and Vermont have had two of the highest rates of increase in positive tests for COVID-19.

Hospitalizations have also gone up to their highest numbers since last February.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said in recent weeks up to 30% of patients with COVID in the hospital were vaccinated, but had breakthrough infections.

New Hampshire Hospital Association President and CEO Steve Ahnen said most of those with breakthrough infections had other health problems that placed them at much higher risk of serious illness if they again came down with the virus.

The council is expected to approve this grant because it doesn’t contain any of the language that GOP councilors had found to be objectionable.