'It's like a time of war': Public meetings throughout New Hampshire marred by anger and harassment

Yes, hate groups and right-wing extremists have made appearances in the increasingly angry fight in New Hampshire against vaccine mandates, mask policies, pandemic shutdowns, lessons on racism, unproven voter fraud, and even pronoun use. But the fight is being waged by your neighbors, not armed extremist groups in tactical gear.

Angry and frustrated teachers, parents, nurses, students, elected officials, and community members – many who've never been politically engaged before – are packing and often disrupting school and select board meetings across the state. And they are having an impact.

“To go and voice your opinion to your public officials, that is how our republic functions," said Andrew Manuse, co-founder of RebuildNH, a group helping to organize many of the protests. “We've been clamoring for how many years that people are not showing up for elections and not showing up for public meetings? People who have never been involved before are getting involved. We would say that's a good thing, and it is."

Manuse encourages followers to do so civilly. Many do, like the hundreds who marched in Concord Saturday for “medical freedom."

But many do not.

A long-serving Hollis selectman resigned last month after being heckled for wearing a mask to a meeting, even as he explained he did so to avoid passing COVID-19 to his 101-year-old mother-in-law and two medically compromised relatives. A state representative was sworn at and reported to House leadership after she took a picture of a protester who was recording video of her at a school board meeting.

Angry protesters shut down an Executive Council meeting last week where law enforcement escorted state employees to their cars. Some of the same angry protesters stopped the state Department of Health and Human Services from rewriting the vaccine registry's rules they believed expanded the state's reach. Gov. Chris Sununu canceled a “603 Tour" stop last month, citing a concern for attendees' safety.

And while hate groups have made appearances – Proud Boys have attended Nashua's school board meetings and armed members of the boogaloo movement were at a Concord rally against pandemic shutdowns – it is local residents leading the fight.

Lorrie Carey, a Merrimack Valley School Board member who has held local elected and volunteer positions for 30 years, said she listened in disbelief at an August meeting as parents swore and yelled at board members during a mask policy discussion. The board canceled a meeting the next month and called for police backup when attendees who declined to wear masks also declined to watch the meeting from the cafeteria, a designated mask-free zone.

“Our meetings have been the victim of politicalization," Carey said. “We have to consider the behavior of those who will attend. You have to think about, how will I get in or out of the meeting? It's like a time of war. I never thought I'd see that in the United States of America."

New Hampshire is far from alone. Citing a spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against public school officials, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday said he has directed the FBI to meet with local officials to coordinate a response.

Sununu last week downplayed the protest that shut down the Executive Council meeting as an outlier event, but said the state has talked with members of school boards and select boards about managing public discord at meetings. The New Hampshire School Boards Association also addressed those topics in training for school board members in September.

“We've been seeing the news about disruptions at school board meetings and certainly have received a number of inquiries," said Executive Director Barrett Christina.

Save for a disorderly conduct arrest of an anti-mask protester at a Timberlane School Board meeting in May, public anger has been loud and emotional but not physical or criminal. Though, some school districts, including Merrimack Valley and Merrimack, now have a police officer at meetings.

Asked if he fears protests, including those involving RebuildNH followers, will become violent, Manuse said, “I don't want that and we made it pretty clear that we support civil protest." The group's goal, he said, is restoring state sovereignty and limiting government overreach.

Asked again to consider the possibility of anger escalating into violence, Manuse said people “are going to get angrier the more pressure that is put on."

Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said he believes contentious public comments at board meetings are slowing down, not escalating, as residents turn to another tool: petitions for special school district meetings. “I think as a result of COVID, there were pointed interactions between community and school boards," Edelblut said. “And as a result of COVID, I think they might have been more widespread. I do think we've turned a corner."

Manuse disagrees.

“I think you are going to see more anger the more people are pressured by losing their jobs over not taking the vaccine and having their kids be forced to wear masks," Manuse said. “The people in government are going to attempt to use force against a population that is supposed to be free. I think, yes, you're going to see some more angry people."

Watch YouTube videos of September school and select board meetings and you'll hear frustrated residents lined up at the microphone, telling elected officials they should be ashamed of themselves and voted out. A nurse from Londonderry grew frustrated in early September when her school board could not answer her questions about the school's COVID-19 testing policy. Her frustration turned to anger when one board member told her testing was happening all over the country.

“I don't care," she said, adding, “You should all be fired" before taking her seat.

Rep. Rosemarie Rung, a Merrimack Democrat, attended her local school board meeting last month to encourage the adoption of a mask mandate given a recent increase in new infections. While there, she photographed a man who was recording video of her because, she said, she has been threatened in the past. Doing so upset many in the room and one man in particular who moved from his seat to one next to Rung, and by his own admission, gave her the middle finger.

In a complaint the man later filed to House leadership, he accused Rung of telling him he “should be in a mental hospital for walking around without a mask" and acting inappropriately by taking his photo. “A true leader stands above the muck, not stirs it," he wrote in his complaint to House leadership.

In her response, Rung shared a text message she received during the meeting from another attendee who watched their interactions. “Please have someone walk you out," it said.

“It was definitely a mob mentality," Rung said. “To me, this is beyond the facts or the issues of the COVID-19 vaccine, and it's beyond mask mandates. I think the (level of) organization … is just trying to disrupt democracy."

Rep. Kat McGhee, a Democrat from Hollis, is worried the angry attacks are going to discourage people from seeking office. She pointed to the September resignation of an 18-year veteran of the Hollis select board who was heckled for wearing a mask at a meeting. McGhee said she thinks organizations from outside the state are fueling the discord and fear here with misinformation about COVID-19 and other contentious topics.

“Our local control relies on people of good will stepping up and volunteering in their communities, and that's what's under threat," she said. “The majority of the public is blissfully unaware."

Simone Boodey, a private school teacher from Barrington, counted herself among them until August, when concerns about schools' mask-optional policies prompted her to found NH Educators for Safe Schools. Membership in her Facebook group grew slowly until she made the group private, and just over a month in, she has about 240 members.

“They have created this culture of intimidation," she said of those protesting what she sees as sensible COVID-19 safety protocols. “People are not waking up very fast, and I was one of those people."

Her goal is to start a positive conversation that promotes public education and public health. “If we don't step forward soon, we are going to lose our state," she said.

She knows she's outnumbered as a “one-woman show" right now. She's right.

RebuildNH, Manuse's locally founded and run group has had no trouble finding supporters. Within hours last month, it persuaded more than 250 people to write letters to the Department of Health and Human Services objecting to the state's proposed changes to the vaccine registry access and the opt-in and opt-out processes. (The department announced Monday it was abandoning those rule changes for now.) Even more people have signed on to a petition against the $27 million in federal funding, believing the contracts will cede the state's constitutional authority to the federal government. The Attorney General's Office is reviewing the contract language at Sununu's request. Elected officials who've received emails from the group's members describe them as personal notes, not form letters.

The group is working closely with Health Freedom New Hampshire, which keeps a public calendar of school board meetings across the state with notes about pertinent masking or other COVID-19 related agenda items. RebuildNH cross promotes those meetings, calling on all “patriots" to attend to “protect our children," even if they don't live in the district. Most posts are viewed 400 to 500 times and often generate 20 or more comments.

When Merrimack School Board member Jenna Hardy asked in a Facebook post for “reasonable" people to attend a September school board meeting to give the “loud minority a reality check," RebuildNH issued an alert in its online chat room. “The 'reasonable' people are trying to organize against all you 'loud, angry' people who won't stand for systemic abuse of children," it said. “Time to SHOW UP and show Ms. Hardy how angry you really are."

Hardy declined to comment prior to the meeting and did not attend, saying afterward that she had a prior commitment. RebuildNH, however, saw her absence as its victory: “Jenna [Hardy] did not show up. That action by itself yells out that she was wrong for posting."

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

For some nursing students, vaccine mandate is a deal breaker

As the state prepares to hire a recruiting firm to bring desperately needed health care workers to New Hampshire, some nursing students with safety concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine are leaving their nursing programs over vaccine mandates. A new state law prohibits most of their colleges from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine, but their clinical sites can – and most will have to under the new Biden administration vaccine mandate for health care settings.

“A critical health care workforce shortage is on the horizon in New Hampshire unless these health care organizations drop their rigid policies," said Rep. Leah Cushman, a Weare Republican who has proposed legislation that would require hospitals and other health care settings to accept exemption requests by clinical students. (The law requires them to consider medical and religious exemption requests, but Cushman said she's been told they are being rejected without review.) “We can't afford to stop new nurses from entering the field."

Mandated vaccines for workers in health care settings has been both celebrated and attacked here and nationally, with opponents warning mandates will lead to large-scale resignations and exacerbate an already dire workforce shortage.

It's unclear how many New Hampshire nursing students have left their programs over mandates. Rep. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican whose “vaccine freedom" bill prohibits public institutions like the state's universities from mandating a vaccine, said he knows of at least 18 nursing students who've withdrawn from their programs. (The law does not include private schools.) Lang has suggested hospitals offer a testing option instead, but that won't be allowed under the Biden administration's new mandate.

Of the nursing programs that responded to Bulletin messages, the Community College System declined to say whether students had left the program, citing student privacy, but acknowledged it's been an issue; Plymouth State University said no students have withdrawn; and the University of New Hampshire said it is not aware of any vaccine-related issues.

The concerns raised by nursing students in New Hampshire and nationally range from the vaccine's unknown long-term effects; its fast approval; suspicions the drug companies are motivated by profits, not public health safety; and opposition to mandates.

They are not persuaded by assurances from nearly all public health and government officials of the vaccine's safety. Nor do they believe officials' warnings that they are being misled by unproven claims and misinformation.

Nursing student Michelle Hammond said she is one of at least four students who left the nursing program at Lakes Region Community College because of vaccine mandates. She was two semesters shy of graduating from a program she began 15 years ago. Hammond is not opposed to all immunizations and got the flu vaccine last year. She said her resistance to a COVID-19 vaccine grew after she felt health care providers – including hers – didn't take her concerns seriously.

“I love being a nurse. It's like being a mom all the time," Hammond said. “Ethically, I just don't know if I want to be in that environment where doctors are ignoring the possibility that there are side effects related to the vaccine. We've been trying this COVID vaccine long enough to see there are problems."

Nicole Lheureux, 13 weeks pregnant, said she will leave her program at Plymouth State University if her two clinical sites do not give her a medical exemption. Among other concerns, she said she's worried the vaccine isn't safe for her unborn child given that it has not been approved for children under 12. And Jennifer Tuthill, who withdrew from her program at River Valley Community College in Claremont, doesn't believe the vaccine went through sufficient testing. “There were not even animal trials on these vaccines," she said. “We are the trial. We are the science experiment."

All said they felt like their nursing programs did too little to advocate for them.

Nursing programs said they are limited in how much they can intervene because unlike their state colleges, the sites that provide their students hands-on clinical experiences are not prohibited from mandating COVID-19 vaccines. And those sites said their vaccine policies will apply to students and staff.

That means students doing their clinical work within the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health System must be vaccinated by Sept. 30. North Country Healthcare will require vaccines as of next month, as will Concord Hospital, which also owns Franklin Regional Hospital and Lakes Region General Hospital. In announcing the mandate, North Country Healthcare CEO Tom Mee said: “The data continues to reinforce the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, including the mitigation of new and emerging threats such as the Delta variant. To that end, we confidently know more than ever that vaccination is the best way to end this public health crisis."

Shannon Reid, spokeswoman for the Community College System, said they are aware the vaccine mandate has become an issue at some clinical sites.

“The colleges can't dictate the terms under which hospitals and other health care provider sites allow individuals to work in their facilities and the ways in which these facilities seek to safeguard patient safety," she said in an email. “We are doing our best to work with students on a case-by-case basis, in ways that support their beliefs, individual circumstances, and educational aspirations."

The vaccination rate among health care workers nationally is estimated to be between 75 and 80 percent, but reliable data can be hard to find for most settings. And while the unvaccinated percentage may seem small, the numbers are not. New York is considering using the National Guard to replace the 16 percent of unvaccinated health care workers who don't have their first vaccine dose by a Monday deadline, The New York Times reported Saturday. That's about 70,000 workers.

Currently, nursing homes in all states must report staff vaccination rates to the federal government; according to a state-by-state map from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, many New Hampshire nursing homes report more than 75 percent of staff are vaccinated, but several report rates below that. Beginning in October, staff vaccination rates must also be reported by hospitals.

What's harder to find are vaccination rates among just nurses because data is often not broken down by position. In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that among long-term care facilities, just 56.7 percent of nurses had been vaccinated compared with 75.1 percent of physicians. The rate was much higher – 88 percent – among 4,912 nurses who responded to a recent survey by the American Nurses Association.

When asked in the survey about their and their patients' vaccine concerns, the nurses' responses were similar to those voiced by the nursing students who've left their programs or are considering it. These included a lack of data about potential long-term effects, pregnancy risks, the vaccine's effectiveness, and uncertainty about the need to be vaccinated.

Nurses also cited concerns about conflicting media reports of the vaccine's benefits and risks, a reason many in and outside the health care field also cite for their vaccine hesitancy.

Lheureux, whose concerns include not only health risks to her baby but also an increased risk of miscarriage, relies on two sources of information: her training and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a database of post-vaccination symptoms voluntarily reported by providers, vaccine manufacturers, and the public.

Although some believe the database is run by an independent third party, it is co-managed by the CDC and the federal Food and Drug Administration. To search it, users must acknowledge that the reports may be incomplete, “subject to biases," and have not been verified or investigated to determine whether there is a connection between the vaccination and the reported symptom.

As of Friday, there were 2.5 million reported symptoms for the COVID-19 vaccine, the vast majority of them headache (109,259); fever (91,361); fatigue (90,122); chills (80,520); and unspecified pain (77,522). There was one report of “risk of future preganancy miscarriage."

Still, Lheureux remains unpersuaded by the CDC's warnings that COVID-19 virus – not the vaccine – puts pregnant women at greater risk for severe illness. Or that the vaccine is safe for people ages 12 and up, pregnant women included. It's not a risk she's willing to take, she said.

“This vaccine came out faster than any other vaccine in our history, and on one hand that is the miracle of modern medicine," she said. “On the other hand, we don't have a lot of information on it. I think it has more side effects than are being talked about."

Lheureux has applied for a medical exemption citing her pregnancy at her two clinical sites, both of which require staff to be vaccinated. If her exemptions are denied and she cannot find another site that does not mandate vaccinations, Lheureux said she will withdraw.

Hospitals not mandating staff vaccinations include Parkland Medical Center in Derry, Portsmouth Regional Hospital, and Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester. But that is unlikely to last under President Joe Biden's new executive order mandating vaccines, with no testing option, for all health care settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding. (Gov. Chris Sununu and Republican lawmakers are challenging that mandate, and the lawmakers have proposed legislation blocking the mandate from being enforced in New Hampshire.)

“We are reviewing the details of President Biden's plan and will respond accordingly," said Ryan Lawrence, spokesman for Parkland Medical Center, which like the other two sites is part of HCA Healthcare. “While to this point we have not mandated that our colleagues receive the vaccination, our infectious disease experts have strongly encouraged vaccination as a critical step to protect individuals from the virus."

Leaving her program was not an easy decision for Hammond, who began her studies 15 years ago but took time off to raise her kids.

“Understand that (a lot) is unknown. I was kind of waiting and being open-minded," she said. But as she heard about others' experiences following vaccination, the more fearful she became. Hammond said those symptoms have included leg swelling, rash, and temporary paralysis. Her father-in-law suffered chest pains after receiving the vaccine. There's no proof the symptoms were caused by the vaccine, but, Hammond noted, there is no proof they weren't.

“You weigh the risks of side effects against the risk of getting sick from COVID," she said. “And the fear of side effects scares me more than the fear of getting COVID."

Tuthill, who was to graduate in December, shares Hammond's concerns about the vaccine's side effects, and like Hammond, she has received other vaccines. She's also firmly opposed to mandates and is upset the CDC and federal Food and Drug Administration have warned against other medical treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. She also suspects the government is downplaying what she believes are legitimate negative effects of the vaccine.

Tuthill sought a medical exemption and asked her nursing program to allow her to do her clinical work online. When none of her attempts worked before she had to commit to her final semester, Tuthill withdrew rather than lose a semester's worth of tuition.

She persuaded the program to defer her enrollment for a year with hopes vaccine mandates would end by then. But she's not optimistic they will, and she believes people who share her views will continue to be dismissed.

“A lot of the stuff I am getting is not from mainstream media," she said. “A lot of what I say would be pooh-poohed because a lot of people out there are not doing their research."

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

'People can get sick and never recover': The unceasing struggle for COVID long haulers

If Heidi Heath was in charge of measuring COVID-19's toll, she'd do more than count cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. She'd share “long hauler" stories like her own.

This article was originally published at the New Hampshire Bulletin

“Keeping people alive is not the only measure of success," said Heath, 38, of Exeter, whose long COVID-19 began 17 months ago with flu and strep throat-like symptoms and continues today with chronic pain that has prevented her from resuming running. “People can get sick and never recover."

Heath worries she's one of them and fears for others given that about 40 percent of eligible Granite Staters are still not fully vaccinated. “One of the really hard things about this is reckoning with the reality that I'm living in the world as a chronically ill person," said Heath, who had asthma but no other serious health problems before COVID-19. “Do not assume that this can't happen to you."

An estimated 10 to 30 percent of COVID-19 patients develop “long COVID" symptoms, which are defined as symptoms that last more than 12 weeks after the acute illness. The most common are fatigue, especially after minor exertion; cough or shortness of breath; difficulty thinking and concentrating; depression and anxiety; muscle aches; rapid heart rate and palpitations; and headaches.

Nurse practitioner and infectious disease specialist Christina Martin has treated patients as young as 18 through her work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Post-Acute COVID Syndrome Clinic, the state's only program for people living with long COVID-19. The clinic has received about 300 referrals from New Hampshire and neighboring states. After evaluating patients, the treatment team matches them with medical specialists based on their symptoms. For some, that's a cardiologist. For others, it's an occupational therapist or neurologist. But it's never a cure because while the symptoms are known, the illness remains poorly understood.

Most studies have focused on the unvaccinated, who make up nearly 98 percent of COVID-19 cases. However, early research indicates the small percentage of vaccinated people who develop “breakthrough" cases can also develop symptoms of long COVID-19. Still, medical experts say the best protection against long COVID-19 is vaccination and continued mask wearing.

“I find that most of my job is to validate that what they're experiencing is real," Martin said. “And in that, we can support them either through physical support or mental support. They say, 'I feel better having talked to you. I feel like this is real, that I'm not crazy.' I think that that in and of itself is really helpful."

Like Heath, Kythryne Aisling of Concord contracted COVID-19 in March 2020, before a vaccine was available. And like Heath, she struggled to find a health care provider who recognized her lingering shortness of breath, exhaustion, and weakness as signs of long COVID-19. She joined thousands of other early long haulers and joined online support groups. She was one of about 3,000 members of the Long COVID Support Group on Facebook last year. Today, nearly 43,000 people have joined.

“I joked with a friend of mine who had COVID a week ahead of me that we were crowdsourcing our medical care," she said. “The doctors aren't believing us. Let's try to research this as best we can as laypeople."

Aisling said many of her symptoms still plague her to the point where she has “bad days" about 70 percent of the time. As a jewelry designer, Aisling is able to work around those bad days. “My customers don't care if I work at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m.," she said.

She considers herself lucky that not only did she avoid hospitalization but had already learned to live with intense and lingering pain as a brain cancer survivor and migraine sufferer. “I'm used to being in a body that doest work right," she said.

Aisling empathizes with people who are hesitating to get vaccinated for fear of side effects. “Yes, but it's so much less bad than actually having COVID," she said.

Monique Raymond of Newmarket just started her graduate work in integrative and organismal biology at the University of New Hampshire. She's grateful for the university's indoor mask policy and testing protocols.

Raymond, 30, and her husband got COVID-19 around Thanksgiving, but her extreme fatigue and body aches lingered. Her symptoms are far less frequent now but can be triggered by stress, a cold, or eating and drinking certain things.

But she wonders for how long. Raymond has a pre-existing autoimmune disorder. “My biggest fear is that this is a catalyst for another disorder or disease," she said.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.