Public health mandates debated by Hudson Valley lawmakers

“Fine. State governments can decide on whether to sell alcohol on Sunday, property taxes or the state bird, but medical issues should be decided on the national level.”
— Lana Chirkova, computer programmer and naturalized citizen

A proposal to oppose government-mandated Covid-19 vaccination was defeated by the Ulster County Legislature on December 21. Six legislators supported it, and 17 were opposed.

Supporters were legislators Mary Wawro, Thomas Corcoran, Brian Roberts, Craig Lopez and Herb Litts, all of whom were elected as Republicans, and Laura Petit, who caucuses with the Democrats.

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The opponents included the entire Democrats caucus but Petit and the remaining seven Republicans. Unlike their Republican colleagues in Washington, the majority of the county GOP legislators weren’t ready to abandon vaccine mandates in all situations.  

Introduced and passed by the public health and social services committee, Resolution 648 was a memorializing statement addressing the federal government’s September 9 mandate directing private sector businesses nationwide with 100 employees or more to require vaccination against the coronavirus. 

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to take up the constitutionality of the federal government’s nationwide mandate on January 7.

Proponents of the measure at the county level spoke in terms similar to those used for several decades in debates about abortion rights.

“This isn’t just about the Covid vaccine,” argued Saugerties legislator Mary Wawro. “It’s also about retaining our rights to choose what we do with our bodies.” 

Unsuccessful Republican challenger for one of the three county legislature seats in the City of Kingston Suzanne Timbrouck, who had captured 30 percent of the vote in the November 2 election,  called in to declare her support for the proposal. “I think the most important point really is that when it comes down to a bodily choice and a medical choice,” she said, “the only people that should be making that choice are yourself and your medical professional.”

Opponents to the resolution included legislator Tracey Bartels of  Gardiner, who cited smoking bans, speed limits and stop signs as examples of personal liberties surrendered as the just price of admission to participation in the Great American Experiment. She noted that Massachusetts had levied a five-dollar fine during a smallpox epidemic in 1905 for anyone refusing to be vaccinated. 

Outgoing legislative chair Dave Donaldson seconded Bartels’ rationale. The 2003 ban on indoor smoking wasn’t “about the rights of anyone who wanted to smoke at a restaurant, but it was about what [smoking] was doing to the bartenders,” he said.

Legislator Herb Litts, representing Plattekill and Lloyd, said he was vaccinated, but would vote for the resolution. 

Many legislators avoided the temptation to debate, voting simply yes or no.

All who spoke did so calmly. No one shouted.

Tensions are running high across the Hudson Valley and the country as a whole as the death toll resulting from Covid-19 recently topped 800,000.

Former governor Andrew Cuomo issued a mandate in August requiring healthcare workers in the state to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or to seek employment elsewhere. His replacement, Kathy Hochul, only last week warned that the state could get to the point where vaccination would be mandatory for schoolchildren. The state legislature may discuss that policy when the members return from their winter recess in January. All 50 states require school-age children to receive measles, rubella and polio vaccinations. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the first case of the Omicron variant was detected in the United States on December 1. In a few days, it became the dominant strain in all 50 states, and was responsible for 73 percent of all new infections. 

Governor Hochul’s office reported on Christmas Eve that the largest repository of Covid sequences in the world showed the Omicron variant had comprised 59.1 percent of uploaded sequences from New York State from December 10 to December 23. Despite the current dramatic spike in Covid-19 cases, it appears that the explosion in the number of positive findings has not been accompanied by a similar increase in hospitalizations and deaths in the state, in the mid-Hudson region or in Ulster County.

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