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Anti-vaccine protesters in Brooklyn on Oct. 24. The

Anti-vaccine protesters in Brooklyn on Oct. 24. The possibility of vaccine-mandate legislation is leading the anti-vax community to prepare for battle. Credit: Noah K. Murray

"Fasten your seat belts," Bette Davis says in "All About Eve," surveying the party around her. "It’s going to be a bumpy night."

State lawmakers might be wise to heed Davis’ words as they open a new legislative session next week. They should expect a series of bumpy days and nights — starting from Day One.

But, you say, every session is bumpy. Why should this one be any different?

One word: vaccines.

After nearly two years of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic around the edges, lawmakers could tackle it head on in 2022, if they brought bills on vaccine mandates and exemption bans to center stage.

But even the possibility of such legislation is leading the oh-so-vocal anti-vax community to prepare for battle.

To coincide with the legislative session’s start on Jan. 5, groups like NY Teachers for Choice and Children’s Health Defense are planning to send to Albany busloads of vaccine opponents and others who believe their personal choice supersedes public health. Buses will come from New York City, Westchester County and four spots on Long Island, which has become the largest and loudest battlefront.

"They’re Coming After Your Kids!" screams one flyer advertising a rally scheduled for 10 a.m. a week from Wednesday.

The flyer cites a bill that would mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for children to attend school. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who just last week signed legislation that criminalized faking vaccine cards and digital passports, has signaled support for a school mandate.

Other bills percolating in Albany would remove the religious exemption to vaccination for adults and require additional reporting and tracking of vaccination and exemptions.

And for every bill that would institute vaccine mandates and stop exemptions, there’s a bill from the other side of the philosophical aisle that would prohibit mandates and expand exemptions.

We’ve been down this bumpy road before. The 2019 battle over banning the religious exemption to vaccinations required for children, which occurred amid a measles epidemic, grew ugly quickly. Those who either favored a "my body, my choice" argument or opposed vaccination entirely filled the halls of the Capitol and harassed lawmakers at unrelated local events.

It’s bound to be even uglier this time. The fight comes as COVID cases are rising across the state, as the omicron variant spreads, and as getting vaccinated and boosted becomes all the more important, especially since the vast majority of those filling hospitals and dying are still unvaccinated.

Making matters worse: Many who oppose vaccination also oppose mask requirements. Will they show up to lawmakers’ offices maskless? In fighting for their "medical freedom," will they endanger state officials and other New York residents, particularly those who are immunocompromised?

But perhaps the real question is: Will Hochul and state lawmakers — in an election year — be willing to stand up for everyone else’s "medical freedom" by instituting laws that could help free us from COVID’s grasp?

Columnist Randi F. Marshall’s opinions are her own.

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