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Batch of vaccine bills heard by committees in N.H.

Patient Fred Rutherford, of Claremont, N.H., who is recovering from COVID-19, spoke on a telephone with a reporter from The Associated Press from an isolation room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, N.H., Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The coronavirus isn’t the only thing mutating in New Hampshire. Multiple variants of pandemic-inspired legislation also are spreading through the Statehouse.

Committees held public hearings on nearly a dozen bills related to vaccines this week, including House Speaker Sherm Packard’s attempt to block federal vaccine mandates. It was written before the Supreme Court halted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test rule on US businesses with at least 100 employees, and Packard said he is open to amendments.

“I am not against the vaccine in any way, shape or form. What I am against, and I will fight every single day that I am here, is a mandate from Washington, D.C.,” said Packard, who became speaker after his predecessor died of COVID-19 in December 2020.

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“I urge people to get vaccinated, but I will not be blackmailed by the federal government,” Packard said.

Other bills would prohibit employers who receive public funds from requiring workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or would allow employees or college students to be exempt from any vaccine requirement simply by declaring themselves conscientious objectors. Opponents said the latter would render mandates meaningless but supporters described it as compromise.

“With this bill, a manufacturer could implement a mandatory vaccination process as required by the federal government for his federal contracts, but he can also turn around and follow state law and accept the exemption of his employees,” said Representative Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton. “It allows that employer to be able to manage his company and do what he needs to do for his employees and his job without losing workforce.”

Another proposal would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of immunization status.

“Civil rights are important, especially in this time and age when personal health autonomy seems to be a growing concern,” said the bill’s sponsor, Representative Juliet Harvey-Bolia, R-Tilton. “I think it’s going to be the concern of our age and the next decade, so which side are you all going to be on?”

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While the bills differed, they attracted many of the same advocates and members of the public, some of whom repeated misinformation about the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines based on anecdotes.

Kathy Bizarro-Thunberg, executive vice president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, spoke against that bill and several others.

“We believe all these bills are focused on, without explicitly stating such, an attempt to insert vague language into the statute against the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said. “It’s our position that employers have the right to determine what is best for their employees, clients, patients and/or their patrons.”

Without naming specific bills, Governor Chris Sununu said Wednesday that some of the proposals “are just really egregious and let’s just say a little bit out there.” But he said in general, he supports measures that reaffirm the approach the state already has taken toward managing the pandemic and the vaccines.

“So many bills we look at today might have completely different language in a month in a half, so I always keep the door open to see what ultimately might hit my desk,” he said.