The state Department of Health and Human Services abruptly postponed a hearing on proposed changes to the vaccine registry Wednesday after losing control of the room to an unruly crowd of vaccine opponents and privacy rights activists.
Wearing “Live Free or Die” shirts, forgoing masks, and carrying “right to privacy” signs, nearly 150 people came to oppose what they see as an expansion of the vaccine registry. They turned angry when the department attempted to enforce the room’s 95-person limit and announced the overflow crowd would wait in the hall for a turn to testify.
The presence of two security officers had no effect, nor did the department’s offer to hold a second public hearing for people in the hall.
Even at 95 people, the small windowless auditorium was not an ideal setting for a public hearing when the state’s COVID-19 cases are averaging 351 a day. That grew more apparent with almost no one wearing a mask and nearly everyone singing, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and shouting down department officials.
Seventeen minutes in, Allyson Zinno, administrator of the department’s administrative rules unit, announced the hearing would be rescheduled and held in a larger room. She did not give a date as the crowd cheered and claimed victory.
New Hampshire was the last state in the country to have a vaccine registry when it started one in 2017. Given its contentious history, fierce opposition to the proposed rule changes was not a surprise. In fact, the registry was delayed by two years over objections to the department’s original rules governing how people would choose to participate and what information would be recorded.
Additionally, a group that rallied opposition to the proposed rule changes alerted the department to mass opposition when it hand delivered more than 300 written objections to the department hours before the hearing, according to an email it sent to supporters early Thursday morning. The group called the hearing’s postponement a “huge victory” in its email.
“After we flooded the room with our activists, the bureaucrats in the DHHS Concord office canceled the meeting in sheer bewilderment, not knowing how to handle your outcry against their effort,” the group Rebuild NH wrote in the email. “This is good news! The bureaucrats have committed to reschedule their rules hearing, and even more of you can plan to come next time! This is a huge victory!!!”
Department officials have told state leaders they intend to hold the rescheduled hearing online. The department had not announced a new date as of Thursday.
The vaccine registry rules require health-care providers to record patients’ vaccines unless a patient opts out and requests not be included in the registry. The opt-out rules were suspended by executive order, however, during the state of emergency for the COVID-19 vaccine only, meaning the state recorded all COVID-19 vaccinations. The department told the Bulletin in an email earlier this week that the record of a COVID-19 vaccine will be removed only if a person chooses to opt-out of the registry.
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, Zinno said the rules do not expand access to the registry or create a vaccine passport. The crowd wasn’t convinced.
The proposed rule changes are both small, such as clarified definitions, and more substantial, such as the addition of other health records in the registry and documentation when someone asks to be removed from the registry. The process for declining to be included in the registry would stay the same: A health-care provider must give a patient a choice to opt out.
The timing of the proposed changes is unclear.
The state is required to review administrative rules every 10 years but can do so more frequently, the department said in response to questions from the Bulletin earlier this week. When asked if these proposed changes are related to COVID-19 or the vaccine, the department said in an email, “These rules apply to the administration of all vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine.” It continued, “The department can also update (rules) as frequently as there are necessary changes.”
The department didn’t respond when asked to clarify whether the pandemic prompted an early review of the rules and the proposed changes.
The proposed changes would add a “health screening record.” The department said that would include past history of disease. “For example,” the department wrote in its email, “if someone has documented proof of immunity to varicella (chicken pox), they do not need to be immunized against varicella.”
The existing rules prohibit health-care providers and the state from keeping a record of someone’s decision to be removed from the registry. That would change under the proposed rules. The department said maintaining the record will allow the health care provider to ensure the patient’s information is not shared with the registry. It will also allow the state to withdraw someone from the registry and ensure no patient information from other health care providers is included.
The department initially said it would be taking written public comment on the proposed changes until Sept. 15. It was unclear Wednesday if it will extend the deadline once it has announced a new date for the public hearing.
This article originally appeared in the N.H. Bulletin.