CANTON — Opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates gave rise to a protest last Wednesday outside the Potsdam Post Office, where north country health care workers resisted the state’s requirement to get vaccinated.
Similar sentiments creeped into county government Monday night, when the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators passed a resolution to formally oppose federal, state and local vaccine mandates.
The resolution recalls how, on Sept. 9, President Joseph R. Biden announced plans to have the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration devise an emergency temporary standard directing private-sector businesses with 100 or more employees to require them to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or to get tested for the virus on a weekly basis.
“Private-sector employees are already overburdened with unnecessary regulations,” the resolution reads. “Staff members within the medical field are already reported to be leaving their chosen fields of employment rather than abide by a mandated vaccination.”
The board contends that “medical treatment and preventative measures are an individual choice,” according to the resolution.
“The government should have no role to play in mandating COVID-19 vaccinations,” the resolution reads in part. “The Board of Legislators believes it is its responsibility to educate the public based on facts and that it is not the responsibility of the county, state or federal government to create mandates that force the general public to accept COVID-19 vaccinations against their will.”
It is also noted that those who want to get the vaccine have that option, and that the county has led a successful campaign thus far to enable vaccination.
The resolution passed 12-3, with Nicole A. Terminelli, D-Massena, Margaret G. Haggard, D-Potsdam, and John H. Burke, R-Norfolk, voting against.
Rita E. Curran, R-Massena, presented the resolution. She expressed concern that the mandate would dwindle the already strained population of health care workers across the north country.
“I’m not anti-vaccine, I just think we need to think about who’s going to take care of our citizens, not just in our county but in our state,” Ms. Curran said.
Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, agreed: “You’re talking about forcing health care workers out of work,” he said.
In solidarity with his constituents, Anthony J. Arquiett said he backs the resolution.
“As an individual, I support vaccination,” Mr. Arquiett said. “But on behalf of the constituents and the voices that I’ve heard, I oppose a mandate.”
Separate from the federal business mandate, New York’s vaccine mandate for health care workers is still in flux.
On Aug. 16, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that all health care workers in New York state would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The requirement applied to staff at all hospitals and long-term care facilities like nursing homes and congregate care settings.
Religious and medical exemptions were both initially included in the order, but religious exemptions were removed through emergency regulations approved by the state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council on Aug. 26.
With the deadline to receive at least one dose by Sept. 27 comes the understanding that if health care workers do not comply and do not have a recognized medical exemption, they will be relieved of their positions.
A federal judge last week temporarily blocked the state from forcing health care workers to be vaccinated after a group of 17 health care workers sued, saying their constitutional rights were violated due to the fact that the mandate had disallowed religious exemptions.
One member of the public spoke out against the health care worker mandate during Monday’s meeting.
“This is forcing hundreds of health care workers out of their jobs,” Ben E. Hull said. “Our community cannot afford to lose a single one of these health care workers; that’s why we call them essential workers.”
Mr. Hull has served as the director of the Center for Cancer Care at Canton-Potsdam Hospital for the last four years. He turned in his letter of resignation earlier this month in direct response to the state Department of Health’s removal of religious exemptions to the health care worker mandate.
“Any job that people decide to take has certain requirements, and if you’re going to go into a certain industry as an employee, you know what the requirements of that job are,” Ms. Terminelli said. “And if you don’t like them, you’re not forced to go into that profession.”
As an example, Ms. Terminelli cited requirements for school-aged children to get certain vaccines. In New York, there are no religious exemptions allowed for school vaccination requirements, only medical exemptions.
Ms. Haggard voted against the resolution and argued that legislators should encourage their constituents to get vaccinated.
“What’s impacting care of individuals is all the unvaccinated people coming into the hospital with COVID and taking up resources,” Ms. Haggard said. “I’m a vaccinated person. Much to the chagrin of some people in here, I did survive getting COVID, and maybe the only reason I did survive is because I had that shot.”