Gov. Chris Sununu has been oft-criticized for claiming to stand on one side of an issue while acting in direct opposition to that stance. To be fair, such a song and dance is almost mandatory in trying to attract the support of varying groups along the political spectrum. We’d also point out that it’s a pretty common occurrence among professional politicians.
But even for Sununu, last week had to be a little surreal.
Thursday, he held his first virus update news conference since spring, during which he noted the state had since passed the 100,000 mark in COVID cases, and seen almost 1,400 deaths.
“It’s a bit of a grim milestone; I suppose you could look at it that way,” he said.
“I just want to kick things off by making the same plea you’ve heard us make countless times over the past 18 months,” Sununu continued. “You’re hearing a stronger and stronger plea across the country: Folks really need to get vaccinated.”
There wasn’t any equivocating about the message. Despite the state’s relatively high ranking in terms of the percentage of residents who’ve gotten the vaccines, the danger presented by the relatively new delta variant of the virus, which itself includes several mutations, has prompted leaders of even heretofore hardcore conservative states to advise the same.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey joined the chorus last Thursday, going so far as to say it’s time to “start blaming unvaccinated folks” for the rise of cases, rather than “regular folks.” Recently, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox — even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s been selling anti-mask and anti-medical expert T-shirts, mugs and other merchandise — have come out in favor of their constituents getting vaccinated to ward off a new wave of the virus.
Give Sununu credit, however; he hasn’t come late to the party. He’s been touting the vaccines all along as the state’s best hope to get past the pandemic.
That’s what made what came next so incongruous. On Friday, Sununu signed House Bill 220 — the “medical freedom from immunization” bill meant to ensure the state or any other public body can’t compel anyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
As legal statements go, it’s a pretty weak law, full of exceptions. As its underpinning, it claims: “Every person has the natural, essential, and inherent right to bodily integrity, free from any threat or compulsion by government to accept an immunization.” (This from the Legislature that also passed a bill mandating an invasive ultrasound for pregnant women.) But it then limits the law to only COVID-19 immunizations, while making specific exemptions for schools to require students be vaccinated, for patients being “involuntarily” admitted for treatments, and in cases where someone isn’t capable of making their own decisions.
Moreover, the law immediately exempts county nursing homes, the N.H. State Hospital, “or any other medical facility or provider operated by the state of New Hampshire or any political subdivision” that the main clause of the law had been applied to. Oh, and it also defers to RSA Chapter 141-C, which says the state health commissioner can act however “necessary to eliminate the threat” in cases dealing with those infected, or suspected of being infected with, a communicable disease, which presumably includes highly transmissible COVID-19.
So, limited effect, when push comes to shove. But it is a pretty transparent nod to far-right Republicans who’ve argued the government may not protect the rest of us from those who refuse the vaccine.
Many of the same group have been the most vocal opponents of mask mandates. And while Sununu said last week he doesn’t envision issuing another statewide masking order, it’s worth noting a growing slate of experts are advising that people continue to wear them, especially if the opposition to vaccinating continues to hinder progress in beating the virus.
We don’t harbor hope that those truly dug in to object to whatever advice and treatment the government offers will suddenly see the light. Unlike the politicians who callously allowed the virus to run rampant as long as it served their political purposes, many of the “vaccine hesitant” are acting on principle, misguided and dangerous to everyone else as it may be.
But we’d at least have hoped the governor, who’s mostly said the right things all along in addressing the pandemic, would have had the fortitude to veto a bill that serves little purpose but to reassure hardline conservatives that he’s with them on this.