By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – State Sen. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, says there is a vacuum of leadership in New Hampshire when it comes to the pandemic.
Particularly, he was criticizing Gov. Chris Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut for not providing leadership on mask-wearing.
Sherman said not only does he see this as a senator but in his role as a physician.
As the number of COVID-19 Delta variant grows, cases in the state rise and debate over how to handle a surge continues, it is taking a toll on New Hampshire citizens and civility and the price is great, Sherman said.
“There seems to be a sense in leadership that we are ‘done,'” with the pandemic, Sherman said in a telephone interview. “We are not. And the cost will be lives lost.”
Sununu, a Republican, and his Education Commissioner Edelblut are leaving a void of leadership on wearing masks indoors, allowing people to fight it out and police to intervene at school board meetings, he said. Meanwhile, businesses are losing precious staff to rude and unruly patrons who refuse to wear a mask, Sherman said.
He said there should be leadership at the top rather than police officers between citizens and school board members as they argue over mask-wearing in schools at meetings.
Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt responded to criticism saying DHHS and DOE have provided extensive guidance and tool kits for school districts to help them formulate reopening plans.
“A blanket mask mandate across all state schools does not follow science or data as rates of community transmission and hospitalizations differ from community to community,” Vihstadt said. “A small school in the North Country operates much differently than a school in Nashua and each must have the flexibility to manage their operations.”
For K-12 schools, the Centers for Disease Control is clear: mask up everyone.
The details are here https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-guidance.html.
The guidelines call for the universal wearing of masks by all in schools K-12 regardless of vaccination status and that children should attend full-time in-person learning in schools this fall with layered prevention strategies in place to deal with outbreaks.
In New Hampshire, schools have just opened. In the business, restaurant, and retail world, the state has a hands-off approach now as well, after declaring the emergency over.
But some, like Sherman, feel the emergency is still in ongoing and that having no rules here lead to havoc.
He said the consequence is at least emotionally taxing and at a time when businesses cannot stand to lose employees over unruly patrons.
Meanwhile, the state faces an uptick in COVID-19 cases and a relatively stagnant movement on new vaccination rates with about a third of those eligible still choosing not to get vaccinated.
Sherman, an Exeter gastroenterologist, who is soon to retire, is a former House representative and former chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
He has been carefully watching the pandemic and often is called upon by his colleagues to address issues of health on the Senate floor.
Before the pandemic, Sherman had been prominent in advocating for state-level implementations of the Affordable Care Act and for his advocacy for expanded Medicaid coverage.
He has been outspoken on health-related issues regarding children and toxins that could impact their future and health, including PFAS.
“As a doctor first, as a Senator second,” Sherman said, the pandemic leadership “is all about public health. It is not about personal freedom.”
Agreeing with Governor
“We already know that everything the governor did during COVID-19 fell well within his purview, the (state) Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.”
The vaccine is the way we get through Covid and come out the other side not only with our health but the healthy economy.
And Sherman said he agrees with Sununu that the vaccine is the way out of this killing virus holding its grip on society.
Vaccines are Safe
The vaccines are safe, he stressed, “and there is a clear guidance on this and the data just gets stronger and stronger.”
He looked to a Kaiser study, at the economic cost of those who refuse to get the vaccine – in the billions to the healthcare system alone, he said, “just because they have chosen not to get vaccinated.”
Sherman said the cost of the unvaccinated is having a direct and indirect effect on life in the nation and here, in both society and economy.
He cited this report https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/unvaccinated-covid-patients-cost-the-u-s-health-system-billions-of-dollars/
Sherman stressed that he is not talking about those, who for health reasons – whose immune systems are compromised and whose immune systems will not have the same robust response the vaccine as others have.
Sherman says to those on the fence about the vaccine, “there is also an economic cost.”
In 18 months, Sherman said we have learned a lot about COVID-19 and our response. He said in addition to the fact that vaccines work, we have learned being outdoors is the best place to be with others right now.
The third thing is that masks work.
He took Sununu to task for not wearing a mask during his indoor event with about 280 family members aboard a train on Aug. 29 as part of his Super603 Thank You tour to the folks of New Hampshire who survived the past 18 months. He booked enough rail car space for 500 and 280 attended, said Conway Scenic Railroad spokesman Jeffrey Solomon.
He said about 10 percent of the governor’s riders wore masks.
“If the governor is attending an event outdoors socially distanced I do not have a problem with him not wearing a mask,” Sherman said. “But to move something indoors, especially in the confines of a train….?” Sherman asked.
“We learned a great deal about masks and short of a vaccine, it is our best defense,” Sherman said. “As a doctor, I would like to see the leaders of the state do what the CDC is recommending. which is if indoors, wear a mask. That is what we do to protect not only ourselves but even more so as our neighbors. If everyone wears a mask everyone is much more protected.”
Sherman said wearing a mask if you are a public leader sends a clear message.
“The fundamental thing is that if the President of the United States or governor wears a mask it sends a message that it is a safe, best practice and you really need to do it,” Sherman said.
And while photos also last week of Sununu wearing a mask at a Louisville, Ky. hospital roundtable show part of the picture, Sherman said the social media feed provided by Sununu showing him maskless with maskless young children on a train and few others wearing masks is “a vacuum of leadership.”
School Boards Under Attack
Sherman said Commissioner Edelblut is not protecting the volunteer citizens who try to do what’s best for the children of their communities.
He said Edelblut is “nowhere” and police are being left to “contain the nastiness.”
“We have disruptions at school board meetings,” Sherman said. “They should have every right and not be bullied by adults saying ‘you can’t do this, that is against our rights’.”
The nation’s top pediatric society is calling for mandatory masks in school and Sherman says, there should be some leeway.
“I am not saying every school board needs to require it (mandatory masks) but if they see a very high rate of COVID in their region,” they should address it.
Sherman said he sees Pediatric Intensive Care Units filling up across the country and it worries him here.
“We have to take it seriously. We have to see leadership from our Education Commissioner and governor,” Sherman said.