GENESEO – Two nursing assistants who carried large signs bearing swastikas during a protest against New York’s COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers in Geneseo on Sept. 16 said they didn’t know the protest coincided with Yom Kippur – the holiest day in the Jewish faith - and don’t regret their actions.
Jamie Moore and Cheyanne Hawkins, who state health department records show work as CNAs at the Wyoming County Community Hospital’s Skilled Nursing Facility in Warsaw, have traveled throughout the region in recent weeks to protest against the vaccine mandate. The two women said they decided to adorn their posters with swastikas for the Geneseo protest to draw attention to what they see as similarities between the vaccine mandate and the treatment of Jews in the early days of the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany.
“We kind of feel like that’s kind of happening right now by us not really having a freedom of choice or making the decision we feel is best for ourselves,” said Hawkins, who stressed there weren’t just swastikas on her and Moore’s posters. “...They had ‘No mandate’ on them with some needles and the circle with the lines through them and there was also ‘We did Nazi this coming.’ We did ‘not see’ the mandate was coming.”
Moore and Hawkins said their posters also had American flags on them.
Pressed on her suggestion the vaccine mandate is akin to the Nazi regime’s state-sponsored discrimination of Jews, Hawkins noted the Holocaust didn’t spring into existence overnight – it took several smaller, incremental steps for the German state to reach a point where it was murdering Jews in a systemic fashion.
“It was small freedoms that were taken away to get them to that point. I feel like, we both feel like, it’s starting small and if it doesn’t stop it’s going to end up being at that point,” said Hawkins. “I don’t know if it will get to be that bad, but I do feel like this is only the beginning. If you have to show proof of your vaccination card to get into places, it doesn’t sit right with me. It just seems like we’re headed in a bad direction.”
Moore said she fears the state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers is the first step on a path that, in a worst-case scenario, could lead to the collapse of the United States.
“We definitely feel that society will crumble as a whole,” Moore said. “There’s a very large number of people who are against the mandate and who don’t want the vaccine, whether it be for personal reasons, medical reasons or anything in between. And most places are already mandating it in order to work. Without people being able to work, what do we have left? It’s not just the health care system anymore.” Hawkins feels the swastika posters “opened people’s eyes” and said she and Moore may bring them to future vaccine protests.
“We feel it sends a pretty strong message,” Hawkins said.
Symbol stokes anger
The pair’s use of the symbol angered some who saw them during the Sept. 16 protest in Geneseo. Pat Krenzer is the manager of Byrne Dairy, 39 East South St., which is right across the street from Noyes Urgent Care where the protest was staged.
Krenzer said she was not pleased to see the swastikas.
“I don’t think we need to see any Nazi symbolism at all. Same as with the Confederacy – it just promotes hate,” she said in a Sept. 17 interview. “You’re just going too far and promoting hatred. I had no clue why they’d put that on there – it has nothing to do with the protest, unless they’re trying to say we’re Nazi Germany.”
Ryan VanPatten, a senior communications major at SUNY Geneseo, drove past the protest and said he was disgusted to see the swastikas.
“I think equating the Nazi state to a vaccine mandate that was put in place to keep us all healthy and safe is insane,” said VanPatten, 22, who’s originally from Waddington, St. Lawrence County. “Two of my roommates are Jewish and were extremely disturbed by them using the swastika in that context.”
Kaylee Erwin, a clinical dietician for Noyes Health who helped organize the Geneseo protest, said she didn’t know who Moore and Hawkins were but that upon seeing their swastika posters, she and others “distanced ourselves from those holding those posters because it was felt they were misleading.”
Moore and Hawkins also attended a similar medical freedom protest outside Noyes Memorial Hospital in Dansville on Sept. 9 that Erwin helped organize. The posters they were carrying at that protest did not have swastikas on them.
An apt comparison?
Jovana Babovic, an assistant professor of history at SUNY Geneseo, doesn’t see any viable comparisons between the current vaccine mandate in New York and the activities of the Nazi regime, its collaborators or the Holocaust.
To Babovic, Moore’s and Hawkins’s use of the swastika amounts to “a misunderstanding of Nazi symbols, of Nazi regime practices, Nazi ideas.”
“Are you trying to say the state is fascist? OK, but a fascist state doesn’t do this kind of stuff,” said Babovic, who teaches general courses on revolution and war in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries and more focused seminar courses on nationalism and genocide. “Totalitarian states don’t usually force you to do something good for your health.”
Babovic said if the coronavirus had struck Europe in the 1930s, instead of forcing Jews to get vaccinated, the Nazi regime likely would have sought to limit Jews’ access to it as a means of excluding them from society, as the party did when it passed laws banning Jews from practicing as physicians and lawyers, for instance.
“For them, it would have been a matter of excluding Jews from access to medical advances, any kind of social privileges rather than the privileged group which, in the Nazis’ case, would have been Aryans,” or German Christians, said Babovic. “So that shows a misunderstanding of Nazi ideology altogether because they wouldn’t have been forcing the privileged group – us as Americans – to have the mandate of a vaccine, rather it would have been excluding others from receiving it.”
The Nazis’ exclusion of Jews from society was predicated on the latter group’s Jewishness, an inherent trait, as much a part of them as their height or the color of their eyes.
In the case of New York’s vaccine mandate, the exclusion of health care workers who choose not to become vaccinated is predicated on just that – a choice not to receive a safe and highly effective vaccine that public health experts say is the best tool for ending the pandemic and protecting human life.
While neither Moore or Hawkins made the comparison, some vaccine opponents have likened vaccine mandates to the gruesome medical experiments Nazi doctors conducted on prisoners throughout Germany’s network of concentration camps during World War II. Babovic said such a comparison doesn’t hold water and drew a distinction between the kinds of experiments the Nazis conducted and the vaccines, which are not experimental, have undergone significant and extensive clinical trials and been received by billions of people around the world without widespread problems.
Such was not the case at Nazi concentration camps. At Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, for instance, camp physician Hermann Richter surgically removed organs from living prisoners’ bodies solely to determine how long a prisoner could survive without them, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And at Dachau, in southern Germany, prisoners were forced to sit in tubs of ice water – some as long as three hours – so doctors could study different methods of warming them back up. Many prisoners did not survive such experiments, according to the museum.
Said Babovic: “In this case, the vaccine has been tested and has gone through regular trials and millions of people have taken it across the world. It’s not experimental… these are not test trials.”
Babovic also pointed out that the options available to Jews and other prisoners undergoing forced medical experiments at the hands of Nazi doctors were quite different from the options enjoyed by health care workers who refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine today.
“There was no choice,” said Babovic. “You couldn’t say ‘Great, I can stay in the camp and have a medical experiment or I can leave the camp, right?’ You’re a prisoner there. Your health is not something that you even have a choice on.”
Despite data, pair lacks confidence in vaccines
Moore and Hawkins said they’ve received vaccines to help protect against other illnesses during their lifetimes – “When I was little and didn’t have a choice,” said Moore – and didn’t suffer any negative side effects that they remember.
Still, neither plan on receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and questioned the vaccines’ efficacy.
“I know many people that are vaccinated that have still gotten COVID and spread it to other people as well,” said Hawkins.
Added Moore: “It doesn’t even prevent you from contracting COVID. It doesn’t prevent you from spreading COVID.”
Moore’s and Hawkins’ views of the vaccines are not supported by data. No vaccine in the history of mankind has been 100 percent effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the COVID-19 vaccines currently on the market are safe and effective.
“COVID-19 vaccines were evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials. The vaccines met the Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support approval or authorization of a vaccine,” the CDC says on its website. “Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines since they were authorized for emergency use by FDA. These vaccines have undergone and will continue to undergo the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history.”
A study published in March in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found partial vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 63 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infections in residents of two nursing homes in Connecticut.
Click here to access the study.
Another study published in the MMWR in May looked at the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in preventing symptomatic illness in health care providers and found a single dose of either vaccine to be 82 percent effective against preventing symptomatic COVID-19 and two doses to be 94 percent effective. The study included about 1,800 health care providers at 33 provider sites in 25 states in the U.S. The study’s findings were in line with the vaccines’ past clinical trials
Click here to access the study.
Earlier this month, Noyes Health President and CEO Dr. J. Chad Teeters said the COVID-19 vaccines are “some of the most efficacious vaccines in history that we’ve ever seen.”
“Almost every large medical body has endorsed and reiterated the safety and efficacy” of the vaccines, said Teeters, who added that the risk of suffering serious symptoms and being hospitalized as a result of contracting the virus is much lower for those who have been vaccinated compared to those who have not been vaccinated.
Moore and Hawkins also claimed there haven’t been any studies on the vaccines’ long-term effects on the human body.
Hawkins said her and Moore’s immune systems “did just fine” in the earlier days of the pandemic when there was no vaccine.
Added Moore: “PPE (personal protective equipment) was perfectly acceptable a year ago but now it’s not? I think that it should be a choice. If I want to make that choice, to get the severe side effects unlike somebody who is vaccinated, then that should be my choice. I feel that your immune system is in place for a reason.”
Asked why, if their immune systems are up to the job of combating the virus they still wear PPE while interacting with residents at work, Hawkins said “Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice to not wear PPE working in the health care field – that is part of our job. We have to protect ourselves and our residents, patients.”
Moore and Hawkins recalled earlier on in the pandemic holding the hands of nursing home residents who’d contracted, and later died, from COVID-19 “because their families could not come in and see them,” said Moore.
Now that there are vaccines available that offer substantial protection against infection, serious illness and death, Moore said she would never try to influence her residents’ decision on whether or not to receive one.
“We have residents who have asked us ‘Do you think it’s a good idea?’ I tell them ‘That’s your choice. That’s something you and your family need to discuss,’” said Moore. “My opinion doesn’t matter in that case. I’ve also had a lot of residents tell me they don’t care our vaccination status.”
Both Moore and Hawkins are holding out hope a pending court challenge rolls the state’s mandate back and allows them to keep their jobs – either by applying for a religious exemption or continuing to get tested for the virus multiple times per week.
All health care workers at hospitals and nursing homes are required to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Monday. Staff at home care, hospice and adult care facilities are to be vaccinated by Oct. 7.
The mandate also applies to all out of state and contract medical staff who practice in New York State.
Earlier this month, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order against the state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers after a lawsuit filed by 17 health care workers alleged it violated federal anti-discrimination laws for “sincere religious exemptions” granted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The fate of people seeking religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate is in the hands of the legal system now as the restraining order on the removal of the religious exemption, issued by a federal judge last week, was extended until Oct. 12.
Beginning on Tuesday when the vaccine mandate goes into effect, people exempted in both medical and religious categories will have to get fitted for an N95 mask and be tested for COVID-19 weekly.
As of Sept. 22, 84% of all the state’s hospital employees were fully vaccinated, according to the governor’s office. As of Sept. 23, 81% of staff at adult care facilities, and 77% of staff at nursing home were fully vaccinated, the governor’s office said.
“It breaks our heart to know we’re leaving them with minimal staff and people who they don’t like,” said Moore of the prospect of being forced from her job. “You create a bond with these people. They’re not just residents, they’re your family.”