Backers of a bill in the New York state legislature say the measles outbreak in Rockland County could give their legislation momentum. The bill would repeal exemptions from vaccination requirements for children due to religious beliefs. The renewed focus comes after the Rockland County executive declared a state of emergency Tuesday.
Democrat Brad Hoylman sponsors the bill in the Senate.
“Well, I think this is an extraordinary time for understanding that we do not have effective vaccine coverage throughout different communities in New York state and we need to reexamine laws that essentially permit loopholes for parents to send their children to school without being vaccinated,” Hoylman says.
Hoylman, of Manhattan, says that as the parent of two young kids, the legislation is personal. Hoylman says he’s hearing interest in his bill from senators across the state.
“But I’ll tell you that the anti-vaxxers and their misleading interpretation of the facts is a very powerful force,” says Hoylman. “We, though, need to stand on science and the facts that vaccines are safe and effective and work.”
Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day declared a state of emergency effective Wednesday, saying anyone who is under 18 years of age and is unvaccinated against the 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, the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella.
Democratic Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee’s Rockland district includes areas affected by the measles outbreak. She speaks to Day’s emergency declaration.
“And the county does have home rule authority under the New York State Executive Law, which is Section 24, local state of emergency,” Jaffee says. “And the local emergency orders by the chief executive allow him how best to protect the localities. And in this situation, it is clear that this is, we need to provide protection for our youth and the families.”
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. NVIC President Barbara Loe Fisher says the Rockland state of emergency is government overreach.
“Is this the kind of public health emergency that warrants this kind of action? We’re not talking Ebola. People are not dying in the streets,” says Loe Fisher says. “This is a very serious precedent that’s being set.”
Jaffee, who sits on the Assembly Health Committee, says she is reviewing Hoylman’s legislation and likely would sign onto it.
“While I believe in protecting the First Amendment right to freely practice one’s religion and personal choice, an individual’s rights must be balanced with the public responsibility to protect the health of the entire population,” says Jaffee.
Democratic state Senator David Carlucci and just signed onto Hoylman’s bill. Carlucci’s 38th District includes most of Rockland County, including the areas where the measles outbreak has been concentrated, namely in Hasidic communities.
“The county executive, I think, took the tools that he has available to him to get the attention that this is a serious problem and we have to start to move in a new direction. So, I think from a state level, we have to focus on how can we mitigate this situation going forward. We have to follow the science,” Carlucci says. “ I think it’s important that we have a system where we don’t have all these exemptions, and I support legislation to remove those exemptions from New York state law.”
The National Vaccine Information Center’s Loe Fisher:
“This is a human rights issues. It has to do with, whether or not in America we are going to have the right to autonomy, the right to exercise our conscience, our religious beliefs and our informed consent rights when it comes to using, in this case, a pharmaceutical product that is liability-free, as of 2011, and be able to make these decisions,” says Loe Fisher. “And NVIC will continue to defend civil liberties and the informed consent rights of Americans.”
Carlucci, who is a member of the Senate Health Committee, says legislation is just one way to address the issue.
“We have to make it easier for our school administrators to follow through and make sure that they have the right paperwork on file. And that’s one of the things that I’m working with the Department of Health on is to figure out how can we make sure more proactive, that we have our finger on the pulse, that we know who is vaccinated, who is not, and that we don’t have to wait for an emergency to go in and start trying to chase down paperwork,” Carlucci says. “The technology is there, it’s 2019, let’s move into the 21st century and have a system where the Department of Health, the Department of Education and our local educational professionals are communicating together all in the work to make our communities safe.”
Earlier in March, nearly two dozen Rockland County parents filed a lawsuit challenging the breadth of an exclusion order in place since December barring their unvaccinated children from attending a private school in a zip code the county deemed a measles hotspot. Attorney Michael Sussman represents the parents. Sussman says he will be meeting Saturday with the parents and others from the county who are concerned about what he calls an unprecedented and totally arbitrary measure, referring to Rockland’s state of emergency. In social media posts this week, Sussman says he has been fighting to uphold religious exemptions and bring back healthy children to a school with no measles cases.
Hoylman, who also sits on the Senate Health Committee, first introduced the bill in 2015 following a measles outbreak at Disneyland in California. He says California’s response was effective in making sure that public schoolchildren were vaccinated and that vaccination rates increased.
“I think parents are being misinformed about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. There’s a lot of nonsense being spread by anti-vaxxers,” Hoylman says. “In fact, Donald Trump himself is an anti-vaxxer, and we need to stand on science.”
Bronx Democrat Jeffrey Dinowitz sponsors the bill in the Assembly. Rockland's measles outbreak began in October, and there have been 156 confirmed cases since.