By Christian Wade | The Center Square
New Hampshire officials are wrangling over millions of dollars in federal funding to promote COVID-19 vaccinations amid pushback from anti-vaccine groups.
Last week, the Republican-controlled Executive Council voted 4-1 to table consideration of two contracts requested by the state Department of Health and Human Service to accept $27 million in federal funds for the state’s vaccine program.
The council was expected to reconsider the contracts on Wednesday but the meeting was shut down after anti-vaccine protesters packed into the hall at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, disrupting the proceedings. State police were called to the event.
Gov. Chris Sununu cancelled the council meeting, citing concerns for the safety of state employees whom he said were being intimidated by the protesters.
He said the protesters “crossed a line” by threatening state employees and disrupting the meeting, and vowed to bring the contracts back before the council in “a couple weeks.”
“There was a lot of misinformation, a little bit of mob mentality, and it went too far,” Sununu told reporters at a briefing later in the day. “Threatening individuals to get what you want is not good government.”
Following the meeting, state leaders issued statements pointing fingers at each other across party lines over who is to blame for the delay in considering the money.
Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy blamed Sununu and Republican leaders for inciting “dangerous and reckless behavior” by fringe groups.
“It is long past time that the Republican leadership of the state stop coddling extremists who continue spreading misinformation and threatening the lives of our state employees to gain political points,” she said.
Democratic Councilor Cinde Warmington, who supports the federal contracts, described the protesters as “a far-right fringe mob” who put the safety of our state employees at risk.
“The actions of these extremists, guided by conspiracy theories and misinformation, not only disrupted state government but was an assault on our democracy,” she said.
But New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Stephen Stepanek accused Democrats of playing politics with the issue, pointing out that Sununu has been the subject of anti-vaccine protests at his Newfields home.
“Governor Sununu led our state through the COVID crisis, has encouraged Granite Staters to get vaccinated time and time again and has unequivocally been clear in his support of the contracts,” Stepanek said in a statement.
House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, issued a statement calling the protesters’ actions “disgraceful and contrary to civil public discourse.”
“Our Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but disruption of government meetings, and threats to government officials, is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
New Hampshire is dealing with an average of between 400 and 500 new coronavirus infections a day, rising hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.
While the state has one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, the number of people going to get their shots has been largely stagnant since the summer.
Only 55% of Granite Staters are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 60% have had at least one shot, the agency says.