The Westchester County executive has signed a bill to strengthen the county Health Department’s ability to prevent the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases. The legislation was prompted by a measles outbreak in Rockland County and New York City. It comes as Rockland County officials have declared the measles outbreak in their county over.
Democratic Westchester County Executive George Latimer signed the bill Tuesday. The amended law empowers the Westchester County Board of Health and the Commissioner of Health to issue orders, adopt provisions of the health code and take other measures to prevent the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases.
“This is not a debate over vaccinations. This is not the expansion of vaccinations. People who are out there who hold certain philosophical beliefs will interpret any action in this area as being that, but that is not what that does,” Latimer says. “And I invite anybody to get the actual law, the actual law that Legislator Williams presented that was voted on unanimously by the Board, bipartisanly by the Board. Read it, and you’ll see very clear what it does and what it doesn’t say.”
Democrat Alfreda Williams is vice chair of the Westchester County Board of Legislators; Board of Health member; and author of the legislation.
“It’s something that is terribly, terribly necessary and provides our health department with the ability to get in front of unsuspected outbreaks of infectious disease, especially when they appear to be happening more frequently now,” Williams says.
Dr. Sherlita Amler is county health commissioner.
“It basically gives the health department greater ability in preventing disease when outbreaks occur in a timely manner because, when you have an outbreak, time really does matter,” Amler says. “It allows us to be proactive and not have to wait before, for the county to declare a state of emergency before we can take action when we have an emerging infectious disease.”
Amler says the recent measles outbreaks brought to light some shortcomings in Westchester’s health code in addressing such an outbreak.
“This kind of all came about because this summer we were facing a question of what were we going to do with our summer camps if there was still measles cases within Westchester,” says Amler. “And you saw what happened in Rockland and Orange, we did not have the ability to do that. We could not say to the individuals working, even if we had a case of measles in the camp, we wouldn’t have been able to say to them, you cannot be here if you are not vaccinated.”
And now, she could. The law goes into effect immediately. Amler says there were eight cases of measles in Westchester. And it’s not only measles that could be the target of the new bill. Latimer pointed to a Hepatitis A outbreak at a Port Chester restaurant in 2017.
Meantime, Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day and County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert this week declared an end to the measles outbreak in their county. They say a measles outbreak is officially declared over when 42 days have passed since the last rash onset date of the last person with measles. In this case, that was August 13, and Tuesday marked the 42nd day. Since the outbreak began in October 2018, there have been 312 reported cases of measles in the county in the largest measles outbreak in the state since 1992. In June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation removing non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements, a move met with opposition from so-called anti-vaxxers. Speaking with WAMC’s Alan Chartock Wednesday, Cuomo commented on the outbreak ending.
“We did the right thing and the numbers demonstrate that we did the right thing because the numbers are literally down to zero in some parts of the state because children were vaccinated,” says Cuomo.
Rockland County officials say the outbreak occurred mostly among unvaccinated individuals, with 92 percent of its cases in people who never received or had documentation of receiving the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine.