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In New Hampshire, vaccine fights and misinformation disrupt GOP


BOSTON (AP) – Republican Representative Ken Weyler was known in the New Hampshire Statehouse for rejecting the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines and opposing tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to promote vaccinations.

But when Weyler, 79, a retired business pilot and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who chaired the powerful legislature’s tax committee, sent a 52-page report comparing vaccines to “organized mass murder,” executives Republicans were forced to act.

“I don’t know anyone who agrees with that. This is absolute madness, ”said Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard, who quickly accepted Weyler’s resignation from his committee post.

The episode was particularly acute in New Hampshire, where the former House speaker died of COVID-19 last year. He also exposed the Republicans’ persistent struggle to eradicate the disinformation that has taken hold in its ranks across the country.

A year and a half after the start of the pandemic, surveys show Republicans are less worried about the threat of COVID-19 or its variants, less confident in science, less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats and independents and more opposed to vaccine mandates.

It’s a combination of views that comes with obvious health risks – and potential political consequences. In a place like New Hampshire, where Republicans hope to regain congressional seats next year, politicians with marginal views risk distracting voters from the party’s agenda, chasing independents and moderates.

The risk is particularly clear in “Live Free or Die” in New Hampshire, where the vaccine fight has activated the libertarian wing of the GOP. Divisions have the potential to dominate the Republican primaries next year.

“What I am wondering over the next year or so is whether this is all just the tip of the iceberg or the whole iceberg,” said Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

Republicans in New Hampshire have struggled to unite around a common position since the onset of the pandemic.

Republican Governor Chris Sununu has been widely praised for his handling of the pandemic, but has also been criticized by conservative critics. They pushed back his state of emergency, which imposed limits on business operations and public gatherings, often staging rowdy protests, some at his home.

Sununu, who is considering a Senate candidacy next year against Democratic U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan, has joined other Republican leaders in opposing a federal mandate on vaccines. But that did little to appease his detractors, who repeatedly shouted at his fellow Republicans at a press conference last month to protest the federal mandate.

Holding signs saying “I will die before I obey” and including a protester with an automatic weapon strapped to his back, the crowd stormed the podium and set up their own loudspeakers which predicted, without evidence, that the warrant would force them. state hospitals close.

Opposition by Republican leaders to federal vaccine mandates prompted a Republican lawmaker, Representative William Marsh, to change parties.

“The belief that is put forward is that their individual rights take precedence over everything, that no one has the right to impose, in this particular case, a vaccine mandate on a person,” said Marsh, an ophthalmologist at the retirement, who was the vice-chairman of the House’s Committee on Health and Social Services and the Elderly. “I am convinced that, for people in a civilized society, individual rights are limited once they start to infringe on the rights of others. “

Weyler’s controversy began last month when he first questioned health and social services data on hospitalizations in the state. He suggested that most of those hospitalized had been vaccinated, prompting the state health commissioner to accuse him of spreading disinformation. In fact, 90% of those hospitalized had not been vaccinated, she said.

A September Gallup poll found that 57% of Democrats are very or somewhat worried about contracting the coronavirus compared to 18% of Republicans. Democrats are also more confident that vaccines will protect against newer variants and more confident in the science – 79% versus 45% of Republicans.

Weyler was one of a group of Republican lawmakers who are so opposed to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates that they have pushed to reject millions of federal funds meant to help with vaccination efforts. This week, $ 27 million was rejected by a Republican-controlled executive council, a five-member panel that approves state contracts, despite Sununu’s calls to accept the funding.

The money would have enabled the state to hire a public health official and a dozen workers to address public concerns about vaccines. But opponents feared it would force the state to comply with any “future guidelines” issued by the Biden administration regarding COVID-19, such as vaccination warrants.

After the vote, Sununu was forced to reject a suggestion that this was the Republican Party’s new position.

“I don’t believe most of the people protesting were from the Republican Party. They are anti-government individuals, closed, without government at all costs, ”he told reporters.

One of the groups opposed to the warrants, Rebuild NH, responded to the arrests of protesters at the Executive Council meeting on Friday by calling Sununu a bully and demanding that he be censored for his role in “this crime against the people of the New Hampshire”.

Democrats seized on GOP divisions, claiming Republicans were too slow to call for Weyler’s resignation and accusing Weyler and his colleagues of damaging the state’s reputation, slowing vaccination efforts and allowing extremists anti-vaccine.

The report Weyler sent claimed that the gunfire perpetuated the “greatest organized mass murder in the history of our world.” It included claims about vaccines containing living organisms with tentacles and unsubstantiated reports of babies of vaccinated parents in South America born with signs of premature aging.

“I was quite surprised that someone sent this to us,” said Democratic Representative Mary Jane Wallner, who received the report by email.

In his resignation letter, Weyler said he was resigning so as not to be a distraction and apologized for not checking material containing “conspiracy theories and sections offensive to groups of people.” It remains in the House of 400 members.

Asked about other comments, Weyler said he had nothing to say to The Associated Press.

Several experts who reviewed the report said it was filled with misinformation and unverifiable claims from social media.

“There is no way for you, me, or anyone at the front desk to verify the contents or assess the accuracy of any statements contained therein,” Al Ozonoff, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Principal Associate of the Precision Vaccine Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in an email.

The authors of the report, which include a doctor who falsely promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, told the AP they stand by their findings.

“Getting your head in the mud doesn’t change the reality. It just makes you blind and ignorant, ”one of the authors, David Sorensen, said in an email interview.

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