A district judge in White Plains federal court on Tuesday denied a request to allow unvaccinated children to return to a school in Rockland County. The lawsuit is moving forward during what the judge terms an “unprecedented measles outbreak.”
The ruling comes as part of a lawsuit filed by more than 20 parents against the Rockland County Health Department and its commissioner. The lawsuit challenges the breadth of an exclusion order barring their unvaccinated children from attending the Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, which bases its education on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. Attorney Michael Sussman represents the parents and describes the judge’s ruling.
“The judge denied the request for a temporary restraining order,” says Sussman. “He indicated that he felt that there was discretion within public health authorities to act as they did.”
Sussman had asked the court to overturn the county’s exclusion order that has kept some 50 children out of the school since December.
“In my view, the exclusion order is overbroad. There has been not a single case of measles reported, anyone in the school, in that school community, in the broader community, which makes up the Fellowship in Chestnut Ridge,” Sussman says. “I do not believe state law gives the authority to the public health commissioner of the county or the state to exclude children from school where there is no reported case of measles in the specific school.”
Rockland County Attorney Thomas Humbach:
“This is a necessary act. There’s no joy in depriving somebody of a liberty that they’ve taken advantage of,” Humbach says. “But, as I said, stated earlier, the supreme court has held that the public health is the primary objective, is a primary objective of the government, and we have to stand strong for the protection of the babies and the infirmed who would be affected by this disease.”
To date, there are 146 confirmed cases of measles within Rockland County, the majority of which are in Hasidic communities. The county’s exclusion order applies to two zip codes considered hotspots, and keeps unvaccinated children from attending schools with vaccination rates below 95 percent in these areas. Humbach says this is the best way to act preventatively. He says Green Meadow’s vaccination rate is less than 60 percent.
“In this case, we are dealing with a matter that has not been directly decided and that is the exclusion in a school that does not have a direct exposure,” Humbach says. “However, as I said, if you go to these schools, or if a student from one of these schools does get exposed and brings it back, that’s 24 new vectors for the disease.”
“There’s been no case that I know of which has sustained the blanket exclusion of children as here in schools beyond that affected by measles,” says Sussman. “The county doesn’t cite any cases. I know of no case.”
U.S. District Judge Vincent Briccetti said, “It’s a tough situation and I feel bad about it.” He also said he is sympathetic, and urged the county to search for a middle ground, saying he is not ordering Rockland to do something but strongly encouraging it. Here’s Humbach:
“Well, the problem is the measles isn’t going to take a middle ground. We’ve taken steps that have, we believe, lessoned the impact on the community substantially. If there were no vaccinations, 325 people in Rockland County could be dead or disabled or maimed by this diseases, at a 1 in a 1,000 rate,” Humbach says. “I’ll discuss the matter with my client. At this point, I do not have any belief that we’re going to change the regimen that we’re taking to protect the public. And, as sympathetic as the case may be, the community must be protected.”
The lawsuit identifies parents by their initials, and parents who spoke to reporters Tuesday declined to give their names. One parent, choking back tears, has a 4-year old pre-schooler who has not been to school in more than three months.
“Preventing my child from being with his class, his teacher, his classroom has had a significant social and psychological impact,” parent says. “He is confused, given his young age, about why he isn’t allowed on his campus. He misses his friends, and is being deprived of the unique educational setting that our school provides and the developmental growth that’s sustained here and teacher relationships foster in the early childhood years.”
She says the case is not about vaccinating versus not vaccinating, rather, it’s about protecting rights. Again, Humbach:
“And with any luck, the measles outbreak will end before the case does,” Humbach says.
Humbach says children may return to school if there is no confirmed measles case reported 21 days since the last case, which, at this point, was March 13. The first confirmed cases appeared in October.