By most accounts, COVID-19 vaccination efforts in the Hudson Valley have been successful. As of January 3, about 70 percent of the population in the Mid-Hudson Valley and Capital regions are fully vaccinated, including nearly 80 percent of those over age 18. Thanks in large part to vaccination, deaths statewide have correspondingly declined from the highs of the initial surge and last winter’s wave. Data released through December 26 show that vaccinated New Yorkers are between 90 and 95 percent less likely to be hospitalized than those who are unvaccinated.
Still, the future remains uncertain, particularly with a major winter surge in cases well underway. The statewide 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases currently stands at 371 per 100,000, nearly five times higher than at this time last year. Statewide hospitalizations have tripled since Thanksgiving, suggesting that the Omicron variant, waning immunity, and other impediments have upended some of the progress that has been made in addressing the pandemic.
One enduring obstacle is opposition to COVID-19 vaccines. Resistance to both vaccination and mitigation measures, like masks, is stronger than it might appear in the region, where in the Upper Hudson Valley, anti-vaxxers have a persistent voice in the group Do We Need This? The Columbia County coalition, which appears to operate more as a loose network than an actual organization, is at the center of regional opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, spreading misleading and often false information on vaccines and COVID mitigation measures, and exhibiting disturbing ties to extreme right movements and trends.
Who Are They?
In mid-November, postcards were sent to every household in Columbia County. The mailers, timed to coincide with the widespread rollout of pediatric COVID-19 vaccines, purported to advertise both the dangers of the vaccine and the negligible effects of COVID-19 on children, and invited recipients to visit the DWNT website and donate to the cause.
The mailers did not shock Michael Richardson, a lifelong activist who lives in the area and has been following the individuals behind DWNT for months. Richardson is the primary author of Vaxx Facts, a newsletter alerting locals to the anti-vaxxers’ presence. “Vaxx Facts came together because people needed to know who [the people behind] Do We Need This? are, and what this is,” he says. “Our goal was to educate people in our community that there was this anti-vax movement out there.”
The origins of DWNT appear to date to August 29, 2020, when an organization calling itself the “Columbia County Alliance for Freedom” hosted a rally at the Albany State Capitol “in support of health, freedom, justice, and the inalienable rights of humanity and nature.” A flyer announcing the rally is light on details, but the intention of the event was to oppose former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s emergency orders related to COVID-19. The announcement’s signatories—Leland Lehrman, Kristin Buckbee, Erich Kress, and Stuart Summer among them—describe themselves as “a group of peace-loving families and citizens professionally active in sustainable agriculture, education, the arts, healthcare, governance, business, and religion throughout the region.” (Buckbee, Summer, and Lehrman agreed to comment for this article, while Kress declined.)
This “peace-loving” disposition may not be what many associate with vocal vaccine opposition in the United States. But while resistance to COVID-19 mitigation measures (including vaccination) is frequently associated with the right, vaccine hesitancy has a long history within movements that might be considered more culturally left-wing. This strain of thought combines suspicion of authority—in this case, government mandates, pharmaceutical corporations, and the mainstream media—with an individualistic, local perspective, supplemented by alternative approaches to food and health care.
The movement has long antecedents in the region. Richardson describes it as “left-libertarianism.” Eoin Higgins, a journalist from New England who has reported extensively on the anti-vax movement in the area—including in Columbia County—characterizes the anti-vax perspective as endemic to a politics that rests on underlying conservative prejudices, if couched in a “libertarian, hippie” framework. “It’s only gotten worse in recent years, and especially with the COVID vaccine,” Higgins says. “I think it would be wrong to think of this stuff as brand new. It’s been going on for a long time.”
Some members of the local anti-vax movement (or “medical freedom” community, in their words) appear to see themselves as more natural ideological bedfellows of the left. “I have my whole life been very active in progressive causes,” says Buckbee. “For me, it feels like the left has abandoned people with regards to one central tenet or value, which is diversity. At the end of the day, the entire situation revolves, for me, around the freedom to choose your lifestyle.”
But Richardson isn’t having it. “When we say ‘freedom,’ we’re saying the same thing, but we look at it in completely different ways,” he says. “Freedom to what? Freedom to infect me? Freedom to kill my grandma in the nursing home? What freedom are you talking about?”
The Role of Pediatric Vaccines
Multiple sources characterize the local anti-vax movement as gaining more organizational coherence in 2019, when religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations were repealed in New York State. In a similar spirit, many members of the local “medical freedom” community seem particularly focused on COVID-19 “injections”—as they frequently call them—for children.
Buckbee characterizes the November mailers as an effort “to offer to the public and the county…additional information within the context of a complete media blackout on anything that would question what I would consider a very unscientific statement: That the COVID injection is safe and effective for all children across the board.”
Summer, who says he helped with the mailers, feels similarly, arguing incorrectly that healthy children have “statistically zero chance of being harmed by COVID. For children to be injected with an experimental product means…we want to endanger children’s lives with an injection, for no benefit to them.”
Dr. Jana Shaw, professor of pediatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University, has dealt with persistent vaccine misinformation for years, and strongly endorses the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine—which she notes has been well-studied, with ongoing monitoring for any adverse effects. She says individuals like Summer and Buckbee completely mischaracterize the risk of COVID to children. “The anti-vaxxers could not be more incorrect. COVID has been severe and very traumatic for some children.” She explains that it is unclear which children will suffer worse outcomes, and that many children with obesity, asthma, or other underlying conditions are at increased risk for severe disease. She also notes the unusual and still poorly understood phenomenon of multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C)—an apparent and sometimes-severe side effect of COVID-19—that has affected children after ostensible recovery, even from mild disease.
Like Richardson, Shaw exhibits little patience for anti-vaxxers. “Until you treat a child with whooping cough, or measles, or tetanus—which I have done—I don’t want you to talk to me about vaccine-preventable diseases, because you have no idea what they are,” she says. “Until you’ve lived with polio, and have seen children and adults paralyzed by polio, you don’t understand the severity of vaccine-preventable diseases. By not vaccinating your children, you are putting them at a risk for severe complications preventable by vaccines.”
Medical misinformation may not be the only problem with the DWNT mailers. The postcards—along with a prominent billboard the group purchased in Albany—have raised questions of a possible violation of New York’s Lobbying Act, which requires disclosure of any lobbying efforts aimed at “the passage or defeat of legislation” or “the adoption, modification or rescission of an executive order,” in excess of $5,000. DWNT-associated organizer Erich Kress was quoted as saying the mailers were a joint effort with the New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights, but the mailers advertise the Do We Need This? website and urge people to sign a petition there addressed to elected officials in Albany, and neither the cost nor funding source of the mailers are clear. (Kress and Summer did not respond to questions about how the mailers were paid for.)
“True freedom comes from a place of social responsibility”
In line with their left-libertarian perspective, several prominent Columbia County anti-vaxxers (including many involved with Do We Need This?) have connections to anthroposophy, a movement rooted in the teachings of 19th-20th century mystic and scientist Rudolf Steiner, and perhaps most popularly known via Waldorf schooling. Though the International Federation of Anthroposophic Medical Associations issued a statement last February welcoming the “development of safe and effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2,” the philosophy is associated with holistic and alternative approaches to living and schooling, and Waldorf schools have frequently been linked to low childhood vaccination rates. According to a 2019 Times-Union article, 51 percent of students at Hawthorne Valley School, a K-12 Waldorf school in Ghent, had religious exemptions to vaccination in 2017-18. (Summer was a teacher at Hawthorne Valley until 2018, while Lehrman was until 2020 a Hawthorne Valley parent, and had served as a PTA member.)
Karin Almquist, director of Hawthorne Valley School, says that things have changed since New York removed religious exemptions in 2019. But she notes that the legislative shift opened a significant “rift” in the community. “There were definitely some families who left [the school] who felt a little bit betrayed, because they felt like they had been here for years,” and were frustrated by Hawthorne Valley’s refusal to allow them to continue enrolling unvaccinated students. (She notes that Lehrman was one such parent who withdrew children from the school.)
For his part, Summer is quick to distance himself and the “medical freedom” movement from Hawthorne Valley and the broader anthroposophical community. “I wish that the medical freedom community had a strong connection to Hawthorne Valley,” he says. “I think Hawthorne Valley as an organization has done everything they could to reassure people who think that masks work and vaccinations are essential that they’re with them.”
Nevertheless, Summer does not discount an anthroposophical dimension to his medical beliefs. “I would say that the most important thing from an anthroposophical point of view is that people do not take things on faith, but think things through for themselves,” he says. “Steiner was very clear that to the extent you’re following a leader, you are not working out of freedom, and freedom is essential.”
Almquist acknowledges some level of ideological connection, noting that “just by nature of being an alternative form of education, I think we attract people who are thinking in more alternative ways.” Questioning the meaning of freedom, and what it means to act on something out of a place of freedom, is a core tenet of the school’s ideology. But Almquist argues that the anti-vax perspective ultimately mischaracterizes the essence of anthroposophy. “True freedom comes from a place of social responsibility,” she says. “From my point of view, anyone who’s supporting what [the anti-vaxxers] are doing is contrary to us working together for society.”
Ties to the Right
Richardson and others describe DWNT as operating in something of a local echo chamber. But there is reason to think this is changing, through convergence of both ideas and people, and recent DWNT events have featured speakers—and supported causes—that can only be described as right-wing.
In late August, DWNT advertised a “Festival in a Field” at Cowberry Crossing Farm in Claverack. Among the three beneficiary organizations of the event was the Informed Consent Action Network, an anti-vax group that has been promoted by Tucker Carlson and is headed by prominent national anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree—a controversial figure who has worn the Star of David to compare the treatment of the unvaccinated to that of Jews under Nazi Germany, and who spoke at the January 6 MAGA Freedom Rally in Washington, DC.
More recently (and directly), individuals associated with DWNT held an event at ArkLight, an event space in Austerlitz owned by Dale Hartka, another former Hawthorne Valley parent. (Hartka declined to comment for this article.) The November event, reported on by Higgins, featured a talk by the author and deplatformed anti-vax conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, among other fringe voices on COVID-19—including Tom Cowan, a doctor in California who surrendered his medical license in December while on probation for prescribing unapproved medications to a breast cancer patient, and who has promoted the false belief that COVID-19 is linked to 5G. (Cowan also spoke at a later DWNT-promoted indoor event on December 4 at Faith Assembly Church in Poughkeepsie.)
Another speaker was Cat McGuire, a palm reader and “spiritual advisor” who has endorsed both COVID-19 and 9/11 conspiracy theories, and who admitted to storming the Capitol on January 6. (Later in January, McGuire appeared on the Truth Jihad Radio program alongside Kevin MacDonald, an antisemitic psychology professor described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic.”)
McGuire was introduced at the event by Leland Lehrman, one of the more publicly extreme individuals in the DWNT orbit. As described in a recent Vaxx Facts newsletter, Lehrman has previously published antisemitic articles associating Jews with responsibility for 9/11 and promoting the veracity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. In his opening remarks, Lehrman alluded to his and McGuire’s shared affinity for the 9/11 truth movement. Lehrman has also supported other fringe theories, writing that the coronavirus is “a coverup of the rollout of 5G,” and “a covert operation designed to facilitate an increase in government control over the populations of the planet and to institute a eugenics campaign.”
In a statement to The River, Lehrman, who identifies as Jewish and is the son of 1982 New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman, writes: “It was and is necessary and appropriate to be more sensitive and deliberate than I was when first discussing these subjects,” adding that “my disputes are thus with the policies of a small group of militant Jewish Zionists and do not of course constitute antisemitism, but rather philosemitism, in that I am particularly concerned for the welfare of our people, who are sometimes led astray by militant and fundamentalist ideologies” (emphasis Lehrman’s).
For Patrick Connors, a local activist and longtime human rights worker who collaborates with Richardson on Vaxx Facts, this conjunction of conspiracy theory with “medical freedom” beliefs is alarming. “Many [anti-vaxxers] minimize the terrible persecution minorities have experienced by grotesquely likening public health measures countering COVID to the Holocaust or to US slavery,” he says. “Many see vaccination as part of dangerous ‘globalist’ plots, with some even embracing antisemitic themes putting Jews at the center of these conspiracies. In rejecting science and medicine, and government capacity to mitigate problems, they reject vital tools often used by the left; and by prioritizing individual ‘medical freedom,’ they’re ignoring the grave harm they may do to their community, particularly its most vulnerable members.” An analysis by NPR in December found that people living in counties that went 60 percent or higher for Trump in last year’s election were nearly three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those living in counties that voted for Biden.
The growing local overlap between right-wing beliefs and conspiratorial, misinformed views of COVID-19 may, in some sense, be inevitable. As Richardson points out, individuals opposed to vaccines in the region may inevitably find their way to DWNT because that group is the major player in the area. “When somebody wants to do something about the environment, there’s four or five people they call,” says Richardson. “When somebody wants to do something about vaccines, or is anti-vax, they pay attention to Do We Need This?”
Future of the Movement
With so much uncertainty around the trajectory of the coronavirus—as well as endemic and more complex problems of degrading democracy, worsening climate change, an economic slowdown, and others—the future of the anti-vax movement remains concerning.
For now, Richardson and allies’ efforts are focused on keeping Columbia County residents healthy, by promoting mitigation measures like masking and improving local vaccination rates. (As of January 4, about 74 percent of Columbia County is fully vaccinated.) In order to effectively combat misinformation promoted by groups like DWNT, Richardson also participated in the formation of another group, Columbia County Community Health Action, which he characterizes as an effort to reach the truly vaccine-hesitant—those who are reluctant to be vaccinated, or continue to procrastinate, but are not categorically opposed.
Michael Seserman is a Columbia County resident who decided to get involved with CCCHA after being disturbed by anti-vax messaging in the community. “For any of these complex public health issues, you really need a multi-pronged approach to have a bigger impact,” says Seserman, who works full-time in cancer prevention with the American Cancer Society. “On a shoestring budget, we’re probably doing pretty well at grassroots organizing.”
While he thinks the group’s efforts—in settings like Facebook, and through op-eds in the local newspaper—have had some success, he sees limitations as well. “My concern for the future is, as we continue to see new variants, we will continue to have more outbreaks,” he says. “With more outbreaks, there are more opportunities for more variants. More and more this is looking like an endemic situation. That’s unfortunate, and it’s not helped by a small, vocal group who undermine people’s confidence in the science.”
Dr. Shaw is similarly emphatic. “It’s frustrating,” she says. “These are people who make decisions not only for their children, but for the rest of us. Unvaccinated people are the drivers of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable infections in the community. With COVID specifically, they propel us into a situation that is hard to control and is costly.
“And those are selfish choices they make…They not only threaten themselves, they threaten us all.”
*This story has been updated to include the International Federation of Anthroposophic Medical Associations’ statement on COVID vaccines, and to correct the circumstances in which Dr. Tom Cowan lost his medical license.
This piece first appeared in The River.