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Rockland Lawmakers React To NY Law Banning Religious Exemptions For Vaccines

Courtesy of Rockland County Department of Health

As of this week, New York no longer allows religious exemptions for vaccinations. Amid the nation’s worst measles outbreak in more than 25 years, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Thursday removing non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements.

Cuomo signed the legislation right after its passage in the Senate, following a close vote in the Assembly. Portions of New York City along with Rockland County are the centers of the measles outbreak in the state. Democratic state Senator David Carlucci represents most of Rockland.

“Passing this legislation was the right thing to do. I’m glad that the governor signed it immediately and that it takes effect immediately because this is a serious… I say that when we eradicated the measles in 2000 that we also eradicated the memory of the measles. And the measles has been devastating and still is in parts of the world,” Carlucci says. “So we don’t want it to come back. We have the technology. We have the ability to eradicate it, and this was a step toward that.”

As of June 10, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,022 measles cases nationwide; 588 of which are in New York City, centered in Brooklyn and Queens; and 266 in Rockland County. Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day says the new measure will go a long way in helping to get measles under control.

“Look, from a perspective of public health, I’m ecstatic. This is a key piece of the corrective process that we need to take not just in Rockland but the entire state and the nation,” Day says. “We have found that the alleged religious exemptions, frankly, are nebulous at best. They’re… We tried to get this across to all of the representatives that there is no dogma nor scripture in Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism that says ‘thou shalt not vaccinate.’”

The National Vaccine Information Center is a Virginia-based non-profit that supports the right for individuals to make informed, voluntary health choices for themselves and their children. Barbara Loe Fisher is the center’s president.

“And this new law was rammed through the New York legislature in one day without public participation in the democratic process. It violates the human right to hold religious and spiritual beliefs that honor and protect bodily integrity,” Loe Fisher says. “And when a government has to resort to forcing parents to choose between violating their religious beliefs or giving their children a school education, that government has chosen to rule by fear and coercion, and will lose the respect and trust of the people.”

Governor Cuomo spoke about the legislation he signed with WAMC’s Alan Chartock Friday on The Roundtable.

“Public health comes first. Public health comes first. I respect, obviously, religious freedoms and liberties, and we’re very proud of that,” Cuomo says. "I understand the concern of the anti-vaxxers, but I think public health outweighs both.”

Carlucci acknowledges opposition from so-called anti-vaxxers.

“Yeah, I understand and appreciate how controversial this can be. And, when we talk about the safety of our children, we, as parents, all want to make sure that our children are as safe as possible,” says Carlucci. “And, unfortunately, some parents believe that vaccinating is not healthy for their children. We have to govern by the science. We have to follow the medical community. The CDC tells us that if we don’t get a handle on the measles that it’ll have a foothold and really start to wreak havoc on the rest of New York state and the rest of the country.”

Parents had filed lawsuits against Rockland over the county health department’s student vaccination orders. Cuomo, on WAMC, addressed potential lawsuits against the state’s legislation.

“California passed a bill that we basically modelled in our bill. The bill was challenged. The bill was upheld,” says Cuomo. “So I feel good about the bill that we have signed. The Supreme Court? Who knows.”

Rockland’s Day says the measles outbreak has levelled a cost on his county.

“We’re holding our head above water basically. We’re sweeping different budget lines. We have got a lot of help from the state of New York, the health department, from the CDC, Health and Human Services in the federal government. They have been assisting us and they’ve been… and our people have worked very, very hard,” says Day. “But the projections of cost for this outbreak when it was, from a month ago, was $1.7 to $4 million. And this is all something borne by taxpayers. So folks who think this does not have a direct economic impact upon them, they should recognize it does.”

The New York State Association of County Health Officials put together that cost estimate of $1.7 million to $4.7 million.

Rockland already has an order pertaining to unvaccinated students that allowed for a religious exemption. Day believes New York’s new measure will show its impact rather immediately.

“School will be over next week. So what we’re telling parents at this juncture is in September, be advised that when you bring children to school, absent a medical exemption that a doctor has signed off on and is willing to put his or her license on the table for, if you come to school, your children will not be allowed in the school unless they’re vaccinated,” Day says.

Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, who represents portions of Ulster and Dutchess Counties, voted against the bill, saying it represents an incremental rollback of the freedom of religion. Carlucci, meantime, is next pushing for passage of his legislation that would require all camps in the state to check children’s vaccination records to make sure they are up to date.

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