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In New Hampshire, vaccine fights and misinformation roil GOP

·6-min read

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

But when the 79-year-old Weyler, a retired commercial pilot and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who chaired the legislature's powerful fiscal committee, sent a 52-page report likening vaccines to “organized mass murder," Republican leaders were compelled to act.

“I don’t know of anyone who agrees with it. It’s absolute craziness,” said Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard, who quickly accepted Weyler's resignation from his committee post.

The episode was especially piercing in New Hampshire, where the previous House speaker died of COVID-19 last year. It has also exposed Republicans' persistent struggle to root out the misinformation that has taken hold in its ranks across the country.

A year and a half into the pandemic, surveys show Republicans are less worried about the threat from 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 clear health risks — and potential political consequences. In a place like New Hampshire, where Republicans are hoping to win back congressional seats next year, politicians with fringe views stand to distract voters from the party’s agenda, driving away independents and moderates.

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

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

Republicans in New Hampshire have struggled to unify around a common position since the pandemic first emerged.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has been widely praised for his handling of the pandemic, but has also come under fire from conservative critics. They have pushed back on his state of emergency, which put limits on business operations and public gatherings, often holding rowdy protests, including some at his house.

Sununu, who is eyeing a run for Senate next year against Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, joined other Republican leaders in opposing a federal vaccine mandate. But that did little to placate his critics, who repeatedly shouted down fellow Republicans during a press conference last month to protest the federal mandate.

Holding signs saying “I will die before I comply” and including one protester with an automatic weapon strapped to his back, the crowd took over the podium and put up their own speakers who predicted, without evidence, that the mandate would force the state's hospitals to close.

The opposition from Republican leaders to federal vaccine mandates prompted one Republican lawmaker, Rep. William Marsh, to switch parties.

“The belief that is being put forward is that their individual rights trump everything, that no one has the right to impose, in this particular case, a vaccine mandate on a person ever," said Marsh, a retired ophthalmologist, who was the vice chair on the House Health and Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee. “I am of the belief that, for people in a civilized society, individual rights are limited once they start to impinge on the rights of others."

The Weyler controversy started last month when he first questioned Health and Human Services data about hospitalizations in the state. He suggested most of those hospitalized had been vaccinated, which prompted the state's health commissioner to accuse him of spreading misinformation. In fact, 90% of those hospitalized had not been vaccinated, she said.

Gallup polling from September found 57% of Democrats are very or somewhat worried about getting the coronavirus compared with 18% of Republicans. The Democrats are also more confident that vaccines will protect against new variants and more confidence in science — 79% compared to 45% of Republicans..

Weyler was among a group of Republican lawmakers who are so opposed to the Biden administration's vaccine mandates that they pushed to reject millions in federal funding meant to assist with vaccination efforts. This week, $27 million was rejected by a Republican-controlled Executive Council, a five-member panel that approves state contracts, despite calls from Sununu to accept the funding.

The money would have allowed the state to hire a public health manager and a dozen workers to address public vaccine concerns. But opponents feared it would have required the state to comply with any “future directives” issued by the Biden administration regarding COVID-19, such as vaccine mandates.

After the vote, Sununu was forced to push back against a suggestion that this is the new Republican Party stance.

“I don’t believe most of the people protesting were part of the Republican Party. These are anti-government, shut-it-down, no-government-at-all-costs type individuals,” he told reporters.

One of the groups opposing the mandates, Rebuild NH, responded Friday to arrests of protesters at the Executive Council meeting by calling Sununu a despot and demanding he be censured for his role in “this crime against the people of New Hampshire.”

Democrats have seized on the GOP divisions, saying Republicans were too slow to seek Weyler's resignation and accusing Weyler and his colleagues of hurting the state's reputation, slowing vaccination efforts and enabling anti-vaccine extremists.

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

“I was pretty much astonished that someone would be sending this to us,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, who received the report by email.

In his resignation letter, Weyler said he was stepping down so he wouldn’t be a distraction and apologized for not vetting the material that contained “conspiracy theories and sections that are offensive to groups of people.” He remains in the 400-member House.

Asked for further comment, 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 pulled from social media.

“There is no way for you, me, or anyone on the receiving end to fact-check the content or evaluate the accuracy of the statements therein," Al Ozonoff, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in an email.

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

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

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