News & Politics

Measles Outbreak Update: N.Y. Official Admits 'Ban' on Unvaccinated Kids in Public Won't Be Actively Enforced

Rockland County, N.Y., made a splash by declaring a state of emergency as a result of 155 cases of measles in their county and banning all unvaccinated children under the age of 18 from any public place for thirty days. It’s an unprecedented action that, if enforced, sounds eerily like martial law restrictions.

But PJM spoke to the director of strategic communications of Rockland County, John Lyon, and was told that the ban will not be enforced: “There won’t be active enforcement of this ban,” said Lyon. CNN reported:

The declaration is an effort to contain an outbreak of measles that began in October; 153 cases have been confirmed in the county.

The outbreak began when an unvaccinated resident became infected while visiting Israel and returned with the disease. It has mostly affected observant Jewish neighborhoods. New York City has reported 214 cases as of Wednesday from the outbreak, also in Orthodox Jewish communities, according to the city department of health.
“We’re not punishing the people who are doing the right thing already and following the rules. We just want to encourage everyone to do the right thing so we can stop this outbreak,” Rockland County’s Lyon said. The step is “extremely unusual. [We] don’t believe it’s been done anywhere in the country before.”
As of today, the number of confirmed cases stands at 155. Only four patients in Rockland County are currently suffering from an active outbreak of measles. In the other 151 cases, patients experienced a full recovery and there have been no deaths reported. In 2019, the total number of measles cases in the county was 47.
Adults are not required to get their boosters for the MMR vaccination, nor are unvaccinated adults included in the ban, which focuses on those under 18, according to Lyon,  because although adults can still contract measles, “the vast majority of our cases, 84 percent, have been in those under the age of 18, which is why we are focusing on that population.”
County Executive Ed Day made a strong declaration this week that his administration was implementing this ban to stop the spread of the disease and to increase vaccinations. 
“In order to prevent any more children from falling ill with this dangerous disease I am today declaring a county-wide state of emergency,” said Day at a press conference on Wednesday. “Effective at the stroke of midnight tonight, March 27th, anyone who is under 18 years of age and is unvaccinated against measles will be barred from public places until the declaration expires in 30 days or until they receive at least their first shot of MMR.”
Many people immediately wondered how the county was going to enforce such a ban. “I want to be very clear for everybody to hear this,” continued Day. “There will not be law enforcement or deputy sheriffs asking for your vaccination records. That is ridiculous… however if you are found to be in violation of this declaration, your case will be referred to the District Attorney’s office.” Day provided no insight into how anyone would find out a person was unvaccinated without asking for records. Lyon told PJM that “it is not required to share private medical information or cooperate with the inspector from the Department of Health, but it’s critical to share information about where you’ve been if you have measles and have exposed people publicly.”
During the question and answer part of the press conference, Day hinted at a possible explanation for declaring a ban he doesn’t plan to enforce. “We’re doing it in such a way that just gets the attention at this point so people understand the seriousness of what they are doing and not doing.” But despite Day’s insistence that the ban won’t be enforced, he revealed that the punishment for disobeying the ban is jail time. “It’s a class B misdemeanor, which I think is six months in jail and, or a $500 fine,” said Day. “We’re trying to gain compliance.”
The Orthodox Jewish community that is mostly affected by the ban is split on vaccine use. Many of them use a religious exemption, legal in New York, to avoid vaccinating. Day disputes this. “There’s no religious exemption,” he said. New York law (2164 9.) disagrees with him, at least as it relates to children who attend school:

This section shall not apply to children whose parent, parents, or guardian hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required, and no certificate shall be required as a prerequisite to such children being admitted or received into school or attending school.

Day believes, wrongly, that if one Orthodox Jew vaccinates and another doesn’t that it proves there is no deeply-held religious belief. But people of all faiths vary greatly on their personal convictions. The Catholic Church has written strongly worded warnings against using vaccines that utilize aborted fetal tissue in development (which the MMR does) and urges Catholics to seek alternative vaccines if possible and to search their own consciences. This would obviously create different points of view among the faithful, some being conscientious objectors and others consenting reluctantly. The difference of opinion does not render the beliefs any less valid or sincere.

Therefore, doctors and parents have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines [13] — if they exist — putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available. They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection [14] with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human fetal origin.

The Orthodox Jewish community has expressed mistrust in the health department as reported by “Forward.” The ban has come right before Jewish celebrations of Passover, when many public events are held.

But Glatt says that there is widespread mistrust of the health department in the Hasidic community. He said that some view the department’s response as “anti-Semitic.”

“There is tremendous misplaced anger against the Department of Health, for various reasons,” he said. “Some people think that this is the Department of Health ganging up on us.”

As much as county health officials would like their demands to be obeyed, this issue raises many questions about fundamental freedoms, namely the freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. If Day believes the law is on his side, and is not just making noise, then he will try to enforce the ban on the unvaccinated in all public spaces. But that could open him up to civil rights challenges and lawsuits. A group of parents for informed consent who are not infected with measles but are unvaccinated are already planning an act of civil disobedience, challenging Day’s declaration by showing up at the Palisades Mall on Thursday, March 28.

Rockland County is experiencing an outbreak in numbers they’ve never seen before and it is clearly overwhelming to their health department. Officials seem tired and anxious. According to the CDC, the U.S. saw an unusually high number of measles cases in the first quarter, with 2019 on track to match or surpass a 2014 outbreak, when 667 cases were reported. In the last ten years, one person has died as a direct result of the measles and while there were 33 deaths linked to MMR vaccination, according to the CDC’s reporting system.

There are currently several bills in N.Y. aimed at repealing the religious exemption laws and giving minors the ability to consent to vaccines without parental permission. Those laws are being pushed by Assemblyman Dinowitz, who called religious exemptions, “utter garbage.”

There are three states that have repealed the religious exemption: California, West Virginia, and Mississippi. In each of those states, challenges have been attempted to regain religious freedom and all have failed. More states are looking to follow their example.

The question should be asked: is stripping personal liberty and protections for sincere religious beliefs worth the cost of vaccinating a small, unwilling population, creating mistrust and anger, while measles outbreaks, clearly a pain in the neck for health departments, have only caused the death of one person since 2015?

Megan Fox is the author of “Believe Evidence; The Death of Due Process from Salome to #MeToo.” Follow her on Twitter @MeganFoxWriter