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My Turn: New Hampshire’s disinformation problem

For the Monitor
Published: 10/15/2021 6:00:05 AM

Twenty-seven million dollars is not chump change. Twenty-seven million dollars could make a real difference in providing New Hampshire the resources to increase vaccination rates and end the COVID pandemic. Republicans on the Executive Council and the Joint Fiscal Committee have rejected $27 million in federal funds for vaccination efforts twice now because radical extremism has infiltrated the process of government. Refusing these funds and spreading vaccination disinformation increases vaccine hesitancy, a real problem that public health experts say is prolonging the pandemic. New Hampshire currently has the lowest vaccination rate of any New England state.

As the ranking Democrat and former Chair of the House Committee on Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs, I know federal funds are imperative to enable the state to address critical problems on our already shoe-string state budget. Whether it’s the mental health crisis, the opioid epidemic, or our long-term care and nursing home issues, assistance from the federal government is crucial, and addressing the COVID pandemic is no different.

The trouble is that our state and our country are in a disinformation crisis. Disinformation and conspiracy theories about public health are permeating the mainstream through social media and other online platforms and have real, tangible effects on the people we love, our friends and neighbors, and now they are tainting the process of government. Republicans in government have bought into this disinformation, with disastrous results for our state.

In early September, House Republican leadership held a jam-packed press conference turned anti-vaccination rally with a hundred attendees whose children held signs saying, “masks are child abuse.” This was a disturbing sight as America neared 700,000 dead from COVID, among them over 1,000 teachers and almost 1,000 children. It is important to recognize that more Americans have already died this year than did in all of 2020, and COVID rates continue to soar.

Twice, the governor’s Executive Council meetings have been disrupted by extremists pledging to halt elected officials from voting to accept the aforementioned $27 million to fund the Immunization Program through the American Rescue Plan, which increases the availability of COVID vaccines to Granite Staters, especially in rural areas. Gov. Sununu permitted these bad actors to shut down one meeting, stalling the receipt of these funds and our pandemic response as a whole. Now, the funds have been flat-out rejected again. The New Hampshire Attorney General has weighed in to say that accepting the federal funds does not hold New Hampshire hostage to any strict federal guidelines or mandates that critics cited as a concern.

Another recent disinformation development happened concurrently, with Rep. Ken Weyler’s antics last week. Having already directed the Joint Fiscal Committee to table the $27 million in federal funds, in his then capacity as committee chair, Rep. Weyler disseminated a document full of outlandish conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccine. The document claimed COVID vaccines contained octopus-like tentacled organisms and 5G mind control. The document also spewed vile religious bigotry towards Catholic and Jewish people.

Republican leadership took a full week to “reluctantly “accept Rep. Weyler’s eventual resignation as chair, though he continues to be a member of the House Finance Committee. House Republican leadership tried to minimize the damage by saying that Rep. Weyler had only read the first few pages of the report and was unaware of the bizarre claims and bigotry to follow. But even the early pages are full of disinformation, and Rep. Weyler’s endorsement of bigotry dates back at least to 2016, when he testified that “(g)iving public benefits to any person or family that practices Islam is aiding and abetting the enemy. That is treason.”

It is clear that Rep. Weyler is no stranger to disinformation. However, while distributing and legitimizing anti-science and anti-reality theories about life-saving medical care is alarming in any capacity, it is even more dangerous coming from an elected official. This kind of extremism and radicalization in the upper ranks of government undermines the most carefully researched current medical science and reduces government effectiveness to help prevent the spread of disease now and in the future.

The current level of government obstruction by a small fringe group is unprecedented. Not only did they derail the Executive Council meeting, but meetings of the Fiscal Committee and the Special Committee on Redistricting were also canceled following the disruption at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. Putting off these important meetings, rather than making adequate provision for government officials, both legislative and executive, to do their work promptly and safely just empowers fringe groups to continue the disruption.

Granite Staters value that New Hampshire is a politically engaged state, known nationally for its crucial involvement in electing the president. Allowing conspiracy theorists and extremists to endanger common-sense public health measures, halt the functioning of our government, and forcing institutions to close political events out of safety concerns is the most harmful blow to the First in the Nation primary that we have seen.

A month of delay and finally a rejection of the $27 million has passed and Granite Staters are left without much-needed vaccination funding. This is not the New Hampshire way. Governor Sununu and House Republicans ought to ditch extremism and disinformation, get back to the people’s work, and get New Hampshire vaccinated

(Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, is the ranking Democrat on the Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee.)




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