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Columbia County Will Be Home To Anti-Vax Festival This Weekend, Sparking Local Concern


A "festival" in Columbia County this weekend is raising eyebrows and alarm as vaccine skeptics prepare to gather at a time of rising COVID cases.

They're calling it "an anti-vaxers’ Woodstock" on local radio and social media. The "Festival on a Farm" Saturday in Claverack is worrying residents like international aid and human rights professional Patrick Connors.

"It's a large gathering of unvaccinated and unmasked people and that risk spreading the virulent Delta variant of COVID-19. That's one concern. Additionally, the event will raise money for anti-vax groups that are spreading dangerous misinformation and disinformation about COVID locally and possibly deterring people from getting vaccinated, which is necessary, can save lives. And the groups that they're also fundraising for traditionally have worked with some extremist alt-right groups."

An event flyer being circulated asks for a $20 donation, which Connors says would help fund national organizations opposed to vaccines.

Connors, based in Hillsdale, describes himself as someone "who's been involved in providing people in Columbia County with accurate information about COVID-19." He's associated with a newsletter called Vaxx Facts, which characterizes festival organizer "Do We Need This" as "the primary local group fighting against vaccination, masking and other public health measures."

Columbia County Health Director Jack Mabb says he met with members of the group some 15 months ago.

"I disagreed with their science at the time, I disagreed with the fact that if you've got 10 studies out there, peer reviewed studies out there that say masks work, and you've got one, one study that is not peer reviewed, and that says that they don't work, that this group was latching on to that one study and using that as their, their banner. So we sort of agreed to disagree at that point. They continue to send me emails, you know, different studies and different things. And but again, we were on the opposite sides of the fence."

The event is also being publicized by the activist group Stand Up Massachusetts.

Vaxx Facts contributor Michael Richardson of Chatham warns Saturday's gathering could turn into a superspreader event.

"We recognize there's a core group that will never be vaccinated. But there's also an another large percentage of the unvaccinated that are just plain hesitant. And these are my words, go to the Surgeon General, go to our own Director of Public Health, Jack Mabb. There in Albany, go to Whalen. She has said this too. So this is not just us speaking that. Yes, the anti-vaxxers are causing hesitancy in those people who are unvaccinated.”

Mabb says any event could be a spreader.

"I feel fairly confident that we have Delta here. So this event could be an event that represents a spreader. These folks are going to come in from outside Columbia County, we're not going to know about them, whether or not it actually is a spreader, except for those folks that are county residents. I mean, my advice would be, I wouldn't go. But if they're if you're going, have the courage to show up with a mask on."

When it comes to COVID, Mabb says although Columbia is one of the few counties not in the state’s high risk category, he expects that may change by Monday.

The owner of the property where the festival will be held told local media the event is a private gathering for friends and family, not a public event.

“Stand Up Massachusetts” declined a request for comment. “Do We Need This” organizers did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.