Vaccine legislation faces pushback from state health officials

Monitor staff
Published: 2/8/2021 3:21:34 PM

Two bills that aim to address privacy and freedom of choice concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine drew strong opposition from state health officials Monday.

HB 220, sponsored by Rep. Tim Lang, would prevent the state from requiring immunizations for communicable diseases, namely the COVID-19 shot. 

Proponents of the bill argued that residents should not be excluded from state-sponsored programs or public schools for opting out of the vaccine. 

“We can yell about this bill to death, and ‘what if’ this bill to death, but the bottom line is, you believe that an individual has the right to choose what they get poked with,  what they’re cut open with, and that the state can never mandate or force medical procedures on an individual, or you don’t,” he said. “I believe that I have the right, and every individual in New Hampshire, has the right to make that choice.”

The N.H Department of Health has made clear that the state does not intend on imposing any type of vaccine mandate. The department has also cautioned private businesses against imposing their own mandates. 

Both of the approved vaccines, manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, were fas-tracked for emergency use in the United States. The drugs were made available to the public, without all the evidence typically required for full approval.

This emergency classification makes the avenue for legal mandates murky. 

Patricia Tilley, the deputy director of the Division of Public Health Services, said the state generally agrees with Lang’s sentiment that residents should be able to choose whether or not they would like to be vaccinated. 

However, she said the language in the bill was far too general, potentially opening the state up to unintended legal challenges. 

Though discussions around the bill centered around the COVID-19 vaccine, the legislation would broadly prohibit “discriminated against for refusal to accept an unwanted medical intervention”. 

Still, Beth Daly, chief of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said she worries the bill could dismantle some vaccination requirements aimed at protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents, like influenza shot mandates for staff in nursing homes and hospitals. 

Daly said these policies have increased vaccination rates among healthcare workers from less than 60%  voluntarily choosing to get vaccinated to about 95%. 

“If you do eliminate these policies, vaccinations rate will, without question, decrease substantially,” Daly said. “Relaxing requirements for immunization will lead to preventable disability and death.” 

Another bill, also sponsored by Lang, would require residents to opt in to the state’s immunization information system, which was recently rolled out to keep track COVID-19 vaccination information. 

The registry serves as a database of who has been vaccinated and when they were vaccinated. Daly said it helps prevent duplicate immunizations, reminds residents when their second-dose is due, and helps hold health care organizations accountable for the vaccines allocated to them. 

Lang said this measure would ensure that Granite Staters were fully consenting before their health data was shared with the state government. Presently, the program defaults to inputting data into the state system, though residents can opt out of the program if they would like. 

“Somehow you're supposed to magically know that you're supposed to opt out, and I think that's inappropriate,” Lang said. 

Holly Stevens, the health policy coordinator with nonprofit New Futures, said these databases provide essential data that help identify under-vaccinated communities. 

“We know from history even looking at medical provider surveys, when those were an opt-in survey to participate in, the response was so low the data collected wasn't even usable,” she said. 

Daly said the bill would not only cost the state valuable health data but also a great deal of money. Texas, one of the few states with an opt-in immunization registry, found that they were spending $1.4 million a year to obtain a written and signed consent form for each resident. The state is now transitioning to an opt-out model. 

“National public health experts recommend these opt-out consent policies because they do respect an individual's right to privacy, while also maximizing the availability of the data that we need,” she said. 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. 

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