The Executive Council’s vote last week to approve a $22.5 million federal vaccine assistance contract was the right decision. How the council went about it, however, was wrong.
The contract was one of two brought by the Department of Health and Human Services before the council earlier this fall. Endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu, the contracts called for $27 million of federal COVID relief money to be used to improve marketing and other efforts to encourage more residents to get COVID vaccinations. They would also help the state improve its vaccine registry, an important step for public health authorities to track and understand the effectiveness of efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The proposal, however, drew the ire of those who, fueled by social media-spread misinformation to disbelieve the urgings of world, national, state and local health officials that the vaccines are safe and effective, saw the specter of federal control lurking behind the contracts, fearing accepting the relief money could obligate the state to enforce the Biden administration’s proposed workplace testing and vaccination rules. Gov. Sununu countered with a written opinion of Attorney General John Formella assuring the contract language would not prevent the state from opposing those rules, which it has now joined lawsuits to do. Already predisposed to disbelieve all public health officials, the opponents unsurprisingly pooh-poohed the state’s chief legal official’s opinion, and they raucously disrupted and forced the postponement of a council meeting to consider the contracts. They eventually came back before the five-member council on Oct. 13, and all four Republican members of the council voted them down.
Both Sununu and DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette decried the council’s action, saying it would hamstring the administration’s efforts to protect public health. Shibinette was able to find alternate federal funding for one contract, but for all anyone knew when the council met on Nov. 10, the other $22.5 million contract remained in limbo, if it wasn’t dead.
To the great surprise of all — except perhaps the council and top administration officials — the $22.5 million contract was a last-second addition to the Nov. 10 meeting’s agenda. What changed? Nothing, except it was accompanied by a rambling, multi-page resolution that does little more than restate Formella’s opinion that New Hampshire remains free to oppose any federal vaccine mandate. The nonbinding resolution, however, did provide political cover, and three of the four Republicans who had previously shot down the contract voted with the council’s sole Democrat to approve it.
The council’s approval of the contract was unquestionably the right move. Sununu has made clear that he wants no part of forcing anyone to get a vaccine. But, as someone who regularly cites the importance of following the data and science, he knows increasing the state’s vaccination rate is the surest way to control the virus. And it’s particularly vital now because he’s warned of a coming surge, particularly among the unvaccinated, as winter and the holidays approach.
Yet the late addition of the contract to the meeting agenda does nothing to promote trust in how the government conducts its business. The contract was not part of the agenda posted on the council’s website in advance of the meeting and was added so late it never appeared there beforehand. Whether intended to avoid public scrutiny, the timing clearly prevented opponents of the contract from weighing in on it, a reprehensible look for any government action meant to be conducted in public view with transparency.
The contract is not a done deal and must go before the Legislature’s Fiscal Committee. Its prospects remain unclear, as seven of the committee’s 10 House and Senate members are Republicans and the contract’s opponents have found renewed energy from what they see as backstabbing by the council. We hope the committee will not be swayed by them and will back this effort by the Sununu administration to raise the state’s vaccination rate. But its opponents certainly deserve the opportunity to be heard — provided they do so with civility and respect — and for the contract’s fate to be decided more openly than it was by the Executive Council.