Rockland County Bans Unvaccinated Minors From Public Spaces

Elynor Starr

Rockland County, NY declared a state of emergency due to a measles outbreak of over 150 confirmed cases of the disease between October 2018 and March 2019. The majority of these cases were in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, where vaccination rates are low due to religious beliefs and the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda. Rockland County took measures to prevent the spread of measles, such as distributing around 17,000 vaccines to residents, but eventually determined more extreme steps were warranted. So, a ban to keep unvaccinated minors out of public spaces was implemented on March 26, 2019.

Parents were required to vaccinate their children, and failure to due so could be punished by fine or even six months of jail time. The ban was originally set to expire in 30 days, or whenever an individual child received the necessary MMR vaccine, however it was lifted on April 5, as the amount of confirmed cases of measles was deemed by a judge to not legally require a declaration of a state of emergency. The intention of the ban was not to punish unvaccinated children or their parents, but to raise awareness about the severity of the situation, and to prevent the spread of the disease. 

Although the original ban preventing unvaccinated minors from entering all public spaces was lifted, a ban restricting anyone under the age of 18 who has not been immunized against measles from attending school is still in affect. When the percentage of total vaccination in the school exceeds 95 percent, unvaccinated children can return (medical exemptions from vaccines exist and must be accounted for). After a two-week time span in which unvaccinated children were supposed to receive the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, the ban took effect, and unvaccinated students are now no longer allowed to attend school. Religious exemptions for receiving the vaccine are no longer considered valid. This decision was met with opposition, as some parents thought it was unconstitutional to deny children an education on the basis of their vaccination status. 

Anti-vaxxers themselves are largely to blame for the spread of misinformation regarding the side effects of vaccines. In the case of the Rockland County outbreak, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has experienced the majority of measles cases due to the rampant spread of misinformation within the community. Health authorities have attempted to stop the spread of misinformation, but despite their efforts, the anti-vaxxer movement prevails. A “vaccine symposium” was held in March to inform the ultra-Orthodox Jews of the harmful qualities of vaccines. During this symposium, a rabbi, Hillel Handler, announced that the measles outbreak was merely a diversion from the “more serious” diseases from Central American migrants. The idea that vaccines were targeting Jewish children and giving them new strains of the virus was also proposed. 

On September 25, the outbreak was declared to be officially over. The outbreak lasted from October 1, 2018, to August 13, 2019, with a total of 312 confirmed cases of the virus. While this outbreak has passed, the struggle to encourage people to vaccinate continues due to the spread of misinformation in many communities around the country.

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