OSWEGO — Oswego County lawmakers sparred over vaccination mandates last week, with the county Legislature ultimately approving, via a near party-line vote, a symbolic resolution in opposition to state and federal vaccine requirements.
The Oswego County Legislature overwhelmingly opposed state and federal vaccine requirements for certain employees, with Republican lawmakers in the majority calling the mandates an invasion of privacy and an affront to American freedom. Democrats, who were joined by a single Republican in resistance to the proposal, said the symbolic measure was an unnecessary dive into a partisan debate and a waste of the legislature’s time and energy.
Earlier this month, the county Government, Courts and Consumer Affairs Committee approved a resolution opposing the federal government’s plans to direct businesses with 100 or more employees to require vaccination against COVID-19 or weekly testing before entering the workplace. Per the resolution, the county Legislature “believes that medical treatment and preventative measures are an individual choice” and that “the government should have no role in mandating COVID-19 vaccinations.”
“The Oswego County Legislature believes its responsibility is to educate the public based on facts and that it is not the county’s, the state’s or the federal government’s responsibility to create mandates that force the general public to accept COVID-19 vaccinations against their will,” the resolution reads. “All individuals should have the freedom to assess the risk and make the best decision for themselves and their families including the right to determine they should receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Despite the opposition to the so-called mandates, the resolution also notes the county remains “committed to encouraging all citizens who make the individual choice to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus to do so.”
Following a brief debate, the full county Legislature approved the measure Thursday by a 20-3 vote, with Legislature James Karasek, R-Granby, who chairs the county Health Committee, joining Democratic legislators Tom Drumm, D-Oswego, and Marie Schadt, D-Minetto, in dissent.
Drumm spoke first on the floor, pointing out the resolution is called an opposition to vaccine mandates, but “when read in full and understood clearly, President Biden’s emergency measures allow for weekly testing in lieu of vaccination.”
“If you’re going to make the choice to not get vaccinated, I believe something like weekly testing is more than reasonable,” Drumm said. “I’m disappointed to see us play into this political football… During these contentious political times nationally, local government should sift through the politics and stick to the facts and science.”
More than 700,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19, along with 100 Oswego County residents, Drumm said. He pointed out more than 500 new cases have been identified in the county in the past week despite a national trend of declining cases.
“And we’re deciding that this is the resolution we need to be focusing on today,” Drumm said. “Shame on us… my friends will cry personal freedoms and socialism but frankly they’re full of hot air. I can’t think of anything more patriotic than caring for one’s neighbors.”
Legislator Edward Gilson, R-Pulaski, said it was “very rewarding to belong to a governing body that still stands up for freedoms,” and decried what he described as “dangerous, socialistic rhetoric” coming from the state and federal governments.
“Our very liberties to make personal choices are being trampled on,” Gilson said, adding it’s a personal right to decide whether to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Majority Leader Terry Wilbur, R-Hannibal, pointed out local and regional hospitals have been impacted by the state’s mandate that health care workers receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and said the safety and health of county residents is at risk due to “dramatic legislative changes from afar.” Wilbur supported the measure in opposition of vaccine mandates, calling the requirements “wrong.”
Legislator Nathan Emmons, R-Oswego, read aloud the Declaration of Independence and said the county Legislature has an obligation “to say no to any mandate that violates” the declaration or the U.S. Constitution.
“We have an absolute right, as our forefathers said, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Emmons said, claiming vaccination mandates are a violation of liberty and unconstitutional.
Debates over vaccines date back to the 19th century, and vaccine mandates are not without historical precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court went so far as to uphold forced vaccinations in the past. In the 1905 case Henning Jacobsen v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccinations, something no state or local government has yet to attempt with the COVID-19 vaccine.
The 1905 case involved a Massachusetts man fighting against forced smallpox vaccination. The court ruled the mandate was necessary to protect public health and secure public safety, and in the written decision noted that individual liberties are not absolute and do not outweigh the safety of society at large.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing for the 7-2 majority, wrote “real liberty for all could not exist” in a society that recognizes the right of each individual to use their own liberty regardless of the injury it may cause to others. Harlan said despite Jacobsen’s insistence that his liberty was invaded and the compulsory vaccine law was unreasonable, there are restraints each person is subjected to for the “common good.”
“But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint,” Harlan wrote.