By Amelia Roth-Dishy
As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout dominates the national news cycle, the Upper West Side’s own Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal has introduced two bills proposing significant regulatory rules for vaccination in New York State.
The first, Bill No. A.11175, requires the state to subsidize vaccination for all its residents regardless of immigration status.
The second and more controversial bill, No. A11179, proposes that the state can mandate vaccination if the level of voluntary vaccination is not high enough to result in herd immunity. The bill allows people with medical exemptions to be excluded from this mandate.
In a press release, Rosenthal (pictured at right) said, “If enough science deniers opt out of the voluntary vaccine process, we will not achieve the necessary level of community immunity, which will undermine the efficacy of our vaccination efforts statewide.” She also cited Dr. Anthony Fauci’s claim earlier this month that herd immunity could be achieved if 75-85% of the population received the vaccine. The number has proved a shifting target– other public health experts have stated that a 70% vaccination rate would be sufficient. In a Gallup poll conducted at the end of October, 42% of American adults said that they would not get a vaccine.
Right now, New York State has about 170,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on hand, with another 340,000 expected from Moderna once the company receives FDA approval. Rosenthal said in an interview with the Rag that based on the numbers available, the state won’t even have capacity to vaccinate 70% of the population, and thereby approach herd immunity, until at least early spring.
“My bill was, and is, meant to have people think about, what does this state have to do in the long run if we don’t get to herd immunity?” she said.
“My deepest hope,” she added, “is that 70% of the population actually takes the vaccine.”
The bill, which was introduced on Dec. 4, is currently sitting with the Assembly Health Committee and has already generated some controversy — some of it particularly nasty. Steve McLaughlin, a former Republican State Assemblymember currently serving as the Rensselaer County Executive, tweeted about the bill on December 7. He wrote, “Not a shock that Rosenthal, one of the biggest nitwits in the Assembly, would push this… So much for “your body your choice” huh Linda?”
In response, Assemblymember Rosenthal posted screenshots of a New York Times article about disciplinary measures issued against McLaughlin for sexual harassment, captioning them “This you? #NotFakeNews.”
— Linda B. Rosenthal “the #OriginalRosenthal” (@LindaBRosenthal) December 8, 2020
As to whether the bill has the support of her caucus, Rosenthal said that it was too early to know and that their priority when the body reconvenes in January is mitigating the financial repercussions of the pandemic. “I’ve heard from constituents in favor and against [the bill,]” she said. “But really my constituents are just terribly worried about making ends meet.”
In remarks made on December 2 at a COVID-19 update, Governor Cuomo stated, “you can’t mandate that somebody takes the vaccine.” He said that the state’s approach would instead focus on educational campaigns to encourage voluntary participation. Reached by Buffalo NBC affiliate WGRZ last week, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) said she hadn’t read the bill in full but, “at first blush, she would not be inclined to support it,” they reported.
On the New York State Senate website, which is not necessarily known for robust digital engagement, a number of comments expressing concern about the bill have each received 40-60 ‘upvotes.’ “No vaccine should ever be mandated, my body my choice applies here,” reads one comment with 59 upvotes.
“I think some people have let their imaginations run away with them in terms of how this bill would be enforced,” Rosenthal told the Rag. The bill as it stands has no enforcement clause, and she stated that is not intended to be punitive. According to the assemblymember’s office, the thrust of the legislation is instead to empower, but not require, the New York State Department of Health to issue a mandate if herd immunity is not reached.
In response to public concern about a vaccine mandate due to possible unknown side effects, Rosenthal emphasized the medical exemption clause. “I’m hearing about, people are afraid if they’re allergic to the ingredients, etc., well of course then they would get a medical exemption,” she said. “That’s just common sense, there’s no need for a tempest in a teapot for this. If your doctor says no, well then obviously you shouldn’t take it.”
While the ethics and legality of a vaccine mandate are hot-button issues right now, Rosenthal’s bill is perhaps the only, and certainly the most high-profile, example that’s been introduced in any state legislature so far. Dr. Fauci has reiterated that the federal government will not make the vaccine obligatory nationwide. “You cannot force someone to take a vaccine,” he said at a town hall in August. States and localities can condition certain services on proof of vaccination, and private employers may have grounds to require workers to get the shot as well. The Boston Globe published an article this week outlining what it would look like for private and public sector entities to mandate, or incentivize, vaccination.
The Health Law Section of the New York State Bar Association recently released a 90-page “COVID-19 Report” that offered several recommendations for vaccine rollout, including making vaccination mandatory if the voluntary program did not achieve herd immunity. “Should it become necessary to mandate the vaccine for some or all the state’s residents, the legal right of the state to do so is well-established,” said NYS Bar Association President Scott M. Karson in a press release. “We thank Assembly Member Rosenthal for her work on this important issue.”
Rosenthal expressed that the discourse around vaccination mandates has redirected the conversation away from the central issue of ending the pandemic. “The goal is to protect everyone in society from contracting COVID,” she said. “I think we’re losing sight of it. That is the goal. That is the goal around the world.
“And hopefully,” she added, “common sense will prevail and people will get there themselves.”