By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
This year is and has been a sad reminder of how fragile life is as the pandemic continues to rage with a vaccine on the horizon.
But unfortunately, the vaccine did not come soon enough for the 600 New Hampshire residents who have died from COVID-19 and their families and friends.
House Speaker Dick Hinch of Merrimack was one of the 40 people COVID-19 claimed last week. He had been House Speaker one week before the disease killed him.
Hinch is the first Speaker of the House to die in office, but not the first legislative leader in recent years as former Senate President Clesson “Junie” Blaisdell of Keene died in office in August 1999.
Much like Hinch, Blaisdell was humbled to have his dream job become reality in the days when Democrats did not ascend to the highest positions in the Senate or House, but his election as Senate President signaled a political shift in the state.
But Blaisdell did not die from an infectious disease as Hinch did.
The day before he died, Hinch attended the remotely held Legislative Facilities Committee meeting. Normally he would have led the meeting as House Speaker, but instead Deputy Speaker Sherman Packard did, saying Hinch was under the weather and made a point to say it was not COVID-19.
The week before, we learned through a leak to the media that at least four members of the House Republican caucus had tested positive for COVID-19 after an indoor meeting at McIntyre Ski Area in Manchester where reportedly masks were not worn and social distancing was minimal. Hinch was chosen as the GOP ’s nominee for Speaker at the meeting.
When Hinch was sworn in as Speaker on Organization Day, about 80 Republican House members refused to wear masks during the ceremony and were mostly seated in a separate section.
Last week at his press conference to update the media and state residents on the pandemic’s continuing effects on New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu, called Hinch’s death tragic and said he was heartbroken, but called his passing “a warning sign that we are far from over this.”
Hinch’s passing was shocking and incredibly sad, but it was not a surprise to many around state politics that COVID was the cause.
Hinch is not the only member of House leadership who has COVID. Speaker Pro Tem, the highest ranking woman in the House, Kimberly Rice, is also fighting COVID as she explained on social media thanking people for their support and prayers.
This is all made more poignant because the state will be receiving its first vaccine shipment this week.
Although the initial 14,000 vaccines are not enough to slow the virus’s spread, or cover all the high-risk, front-line health-care workers who will be first to receive the jab, it is the beginning of what officials hope will be the pandemic’s end.
But to be effective and halt the pandemic’s spread, a hefty majority of the state’s residents have to be willing to take the shots in the next six months.
Some Privacy Issues
One aspect that may make some folks reluctant to be vaccinated is the federal requirements for data collection.
In an executive order issued Friday by Sununu, he outlines the requirements the Centers for Disease Control, which is paying for the vaccine, requires for data keeping including that the Department of Health and Human Services keep a record of “each vaccination event.”
Those records will be collected in the New Hampshire Immunization Information System, and will include both medical and vaccination records, and as Sununu shared last week, will ensure people who are vaccinated, receive the same vaccine for the second or booster shot three to four weeks after the first one, and to remind a person, it is time for him or her to receive the second shot.
And as the executive order states “DHHS is required to share data with the CDC in accordance with grant funding requirements for vaccine distribution. In accordance with 45 CFR 75.322(d)(l), the federal government has the right to obtain, reproduce, publish, or otherwise use the data produced under a federal award.”
But the order says the state has an agreement with the CDC to protect “identifiable data” but it will be available to the CDC to ensure a person receives the same vaccines if two different providers give the shots, and notes the CDC is exploring solutions to protect personal medical information.
“The New Hampshire Immunization Information System is the only operational system that can enable DPHS to comply with the complex provider, distributor, and administrator data collection, transmission, and storage that will be required to report information on COVID-19 vaccine data elements to CDC in a timely fashion,” according to the executive order. “This will enable CDC to reliably account for COVID-19 vaccinations and analyze vaccination coverage by demographic factors once vaccine supplies are available.”
The order notes a timely and effective distribution of the vaccine requires “coordination and sharing of information, including specific details concerning the amount of vaccine required, the number and efficacy of vaccine doses administered, the statewide and regional areas in most need of vaccine due to vulnerable or high-risk populations, need for administration in long-term care facilities, and information relating to coverage gaps.”
The only option for the needed information storage is the state’s immunization system, according to Sununu’s order, and “it is important for the NHIIS to contain all information relating to medical record and vaccination events for every person who receives COVID-19 vaccine.”
However, under state law, a person has the option of opting out of providing immunization information to the state’s immunization information system, as well as under administrative rules.
Although health-care providers are required to forward the information to the state, they do not have to if a person or parent of a minor child does not want the information in the system.
The executive order suspends those provisions during the state of emergency and requires everyone who is vaccinated to allow the state to collect the needed data and share it with the federal government.
The order also requires all health-care providers administering the vaccine to provide the data to the state within 24 hours.
The information will be stored as a medical record which limits who may access the data.
Once the emergency order is lifted by the governor or the legislature, people may again opt out and may go through the usual procedure to have that information removed from the system.
The privacy issues may keep some from vaccination, but the alternatives are not good.
It is never simple, but the record keeping will be worth it if it helps prevent another tragic death like Dick Hinch’s.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.