In what may be an unprecedented move, New York’s Rockland County has declared a state of emergency that bans unvaccinated children and teenagers from public places. As Michael Gold and Tyler Pager report for the New York Times, the ban, which will go into effect at midnight, was prompted by a severe measles outbreak that has totalled 153 cases since October.
“We believe this to be the first effort of its kind nationally,” county executive Ed Day said at a press conference announcing the ban. “The circumstances we face here clearly call for that.”
The declaration will expire in 30 days; for individual children, it lifts when they receive the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine. Day stressed that officials will not be stopping people on the street to ask for their vaccination records. Instead, the ban will be enforced retroactively, with parents facing up to six months in jail or a $500 fine—or both—if epidemiological investigations reveal that they allowed their unvaccinated children to enter a public place while the ban was in effect. But penalizing people is not the goal, Day said.
“We’re doing it in such a way to just get attention at this point so that people understand the seriousness of what they are doing—and not doing,” he explained.
Though measles was declared eradicated from the United States in 2000, outbreaks have been cropping up in certain pockets of the country where vaccine fears run high, fuelled by disproven claims that vaccines cause autism. As of March 21, there have been 314 documented measles cases this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Rockland County, the outbreak has largely affected ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, which have ties to communities in the Willamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods in Brooklyn, where outbreaks have also occurred. The infections in New York originated with travelers who brought the viral illness back from Israel, reports Vox’s Julia Belluz.
Measles is highly contagious—according to the CDC, 90 percent of non-immunized individuals near an infected person will contract it—and can have serious complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis. Sometimes, these complications prove fatal. If a high percentage of a given population is immunized, the MMR vaccine can protect even those who are not immune. But as little as a five percent reduction in “vaccination coverage” could triple the number of measles cases in the United States, one study found. In Rockland county, only 72.9 percent of people between the ages of one and 18 are vaccinated, according to Day.
Prior to instituting the ban, Rockland County implemented a number of measures in an effort to curb its outbreak: it banned 6,000 unvaccinated students from attending school, administered 17,000 doses of the MMR vaccine and worked with local rabbis to promote vaccination campaigns. But that hasn’t been enough to stop the spread of the disease. What’s more, Day noted at the press briefing, some residents have refused to cooperate with investigators trying to visit the homes of infected individuals.
“They’ve been told, ‘We’re not discussing this, do not come back,’” he said. “This type of response is unacceptable, and frankly irresponsible. It endangers the health and well-being of others, and displays a shocking lack of responsibility and concern for others in our community.”
Some experts have questioned whether the newly implemented ban will do more good than harm. “Are you just going to make the situation in this community worse?” Wendy E. Parmet, a professor of health policy and law at Northeastern University, wondered in an interview with Gold and Pager of the Times. “Are you going to increase the distrust in health authorities?” But others adhere to the old adage: desperate times call for desperate measures.
“It may take extraordinary measures to stem the increase in the number of cases we’ve been seeing,” Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells the Verge’s Rachel Becker. “Otherwise they’re not going to get their arms around it. It’s just going to continue to infect large cohorts of people.”