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Opponents of COVID vaccine mandates to rally in Albany on Wednesday

Protesters against vaccine mandates rally at Stony Brook

Protesters against vaccine mandates rally at Stony Brook University Hospital in August. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Opponents of COVID-19-inspired vaccine mandates are planning to rally Wednesday in Albany at the State Capitol to protest legislation they consider an undue and unnecessary encroachment on personal freedom.

Rejecting the public-health consensus that the COVID-19 shot is essential to minimize deaths and hospitalizations and to limit virus spread, the NYS Freedom of Choice Rally is being organized with the help of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s nonprofit Children’s Health Defense. The group considers vaccinations dangerous in general — a view contrary to an even earlier public-health consensus that immunization saves millions of lives every year.

Says a flyer for the rally: "THEY’RE COMING AFTER YOUR KIDS!"

A bus trip to Albany is scheduled to leave Calverton’s Hampton Jitney terminal at 5 a.m., with stops in Farmingville, Huntington, Roslyn and onward.

Leaning on the New York State Legislature during the pandemic represents a relatively new front in efforts dating to last year to curb pandemic mandates, largely imposed by the governor’s office via executive order. Most judges hearing challenges — though not all — have deferred to the executive branch in rulings, such as on vaccine mandates for workers.

Wednesday’s rally is the type of effort by various interest groups — on a wide range of issues — that seize annually on the start of Albany’s legislative session, which in 2022 begins Wednesday.

For those attending the rally, at least five bills under consideration are in the crosshairs:

  • Mandating that kids get the COVID-19 vaccine, once "approved by the United States public health service," as a condition of attending any public, private, parochial or other school, and conditioning school aid on the execution of such an immunization program.
  • Further limiting exemptions from any kind of immunization and repealing the current law granting an exemption to "a person who holds genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to" the vaccination requirement.
  • Requiring any vaccinator to report to the government all immunizations of people at least 19 years old, unless the person objects; currently, the law requires affirmative consent.
  • Allowing minors who are at least 14 years old to consent to vaccination "regardless of parental consent."
  • Ordering that the government start keeping records to track health-care providers who grant exemptions to vaccines in school. The aim is to develop "sufficient information to investigate suspicious patterns of vaccine medical exemptions and take appropriate actions."

Opposing views of mandates

Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) says changing the laws to factor in the COVID-19 pandemic is just the next step in long-standing policy mandating vaccines for a host of other contagious diseases, such as mumps and measles.

He rejected an argument by mandate opponents, that the exponential surge of the omicron variant, including among some vaccinated people, proves how the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t working as had been promised, including as a stopper of spread.

"That’s complete hogwash. That’s just totally contrary to the medical facts. The vaccine works. It’s not 100% effective. Nothing in life is 100% effective," he said.

Even as COVID-19 cases have surged, death and serious illness among those vaccinated have stayed under control, according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

On Long Island, 47%, or 212,567 out of 450,930 children ages 5 to 17, are vaccinated with at least one dose — 70.8% of 12- to 17-year-olds and 24.5% of 5- to 11-year-olds, according to the state’s vaccine tracker.

Kimberly Sabbagh, 51, of Malverne, said she is going to the rally because "the government is corrupt."

"We’re not going to take this nonsense," she said, adding: "It’s against our rights. It’s your body, your choice."

Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has said she supports a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, said Friday in a statement: "Governor Hochul is steadfast in her commitment to getting through this pandemic, protecting New Yorkers, and saving lives — and vaccinations and boosters are critical to these efforts."

A rally organizer, Michael Kane, 43, of the group NY Teachers For Choice, taught special education in the New York City public schools until October, when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaccine mandate went into effect for city Department of Education employees.

Kane refused to get the shot, and now he’s on unpaid leave, with no plans to comply. He says he believes that he came down with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic and that he has virus-conferred immunity.

Still, he said, while he isn’t necessarily opposed to face-masking under certain circumstances, he wouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine under any circumstance, even if he was found not to have antibodies, and doesn’t believe anyone else should be forced to get the shot.

His message: "No to mandates, essentially. We’re not in April of 2020 any longer."

Kane, who's from Massapequa and now lives in Wantagh, says he favors the state's status quo requiring vaccinations for other diseases, as long as there's the current exemption process, plus a bolstered process for adjudicating religious exemptions.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) said of the sentiment against COVID-19 vaccines: "You don’t live on an island … we live in a society where people are dependent on each other being vaccinated, protecting their friends and families and neighbors."

He said the state needs "accurate, up-to-date data on vaccine uptake." Asked why a change in the status quo of vaccine record-keeping is necessary, he said: "It’s not because anyone’s trying to implant a chip in their brain, or track their whereabouts with a satellite. This is the level of lunacy that we’re operating on. And it needs to be called out for what it is: Vaccine hesitancy is tantamount to flat-Earth theories."

A fundraising boon for group

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a fundraising boon for Children’s Health Defense, Kennedy’s group, which fought against vaccine requirements for kids, such as against measles, mumps and rubella.

Filings with charity regulators show revenue for the group more than doubled in 2020, to $6.8 million, and monthly visitors to its website exploding to millions from less than 150,000 before the pandemic, according to The Associated Press.

John Gilmore of Long Beach, president in New York, isn’t deterred by Hochul’s promise that the legislature would impose the vaccine requirement on schoolchildren.

He pointed to the rejection in recent weeks by about a quarter of county executives — including incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman — of Hochul’s reinstituting of the indoor-masking mandate.

"I think people have a right to bodily integrity," Gilmore said, "and we also think that the state does not have any right to tell parents what medical procedures they must do to their children, either."

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