NEW YORK – State legislators are pushing to end non-medical exemptions to vaccinations for school-aged children, as measles cases in Brooklyn, Queens and Rockland County have reached 425.
Legislation in Albany mirrors one passed in California after a measles outbreak spread through Disneyland in 2015.
New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman and state Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the main sponsors of the bills, were joined by medical professionals and state Sen. David Carlucci on Thursday on the steps of City Hall to call for support of the legislation.
“The goal here is to push legislation to remove all non-medical exemptions for vaccination for children to go to school in New York state,” said Carlucci, a Democrat from New City. “We’ve seen the spread of measles really spread like wildfire in communities where the vaccination rates are not high.”
All three legislators are Democrats. Hoylman is from Manhattan, Dinowitz the Bronx and Carlucci represents Rockland County and parts of Westchester County. Similar bills to end religious exemptions in New York failed in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 legislative sessions.
If the current legislation (S2994/A2371), which is in committee in both the Senate and Assembly, were to become law, New York would become the fourth state that allows only medical exemptions for vaccinations, following California, Mississippi and West Virginia.
Similar legislation to end religious exemptions has been introduced in New Jersey.
All 50 states require that students be vaccinated for diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough, chickenpox and polio, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All states allow exemptions for medical reasons, while 47 allow exemptions for religious reasons and 17 also permit “philosophical exemptions.”
‘Personal belief loophole’
“New York’s religious belief exemption is a personal belief loophole,” Hoylman said Thursday. “According to experts, no major religious group advocates against vaccinations as a matter of official doctrine.”
The measles outbreak has thrown a spotlight on the Orthodox Jewish community, where most cases have occurred. The current outbreak is the longest and largest in New York state since measles was officially eradicated in 2000.
“I cannot understand how anyone can reach the conclusion that it’s forbidden to vaccinate because of Jewish law,” said Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, founding dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, New York. “Quite to the contrary, I think Jewish law mandates that we should get vaccinated. Maintaining one’s health is paramount in Jewish law.”
More than 17,400 people have been vaccinated since the outbreak began. Refuah Health Center in Spring Valley, which caters to the large Jewish community in Rockland, has administered more than 11,000 vaccines.
An additional 700 immunizations were administered in Rockland County after County Executive Ed Day’s emergency declaration March 26 that banned unvaccinated minors from public spaces.
But the state legislation does not target a specific religious group, Carlucci said.
“The religious communities that I’ve spoken to in no way prevent people from getting vaccinated,” he said. “This (bill) would take any of that misconception out of the puzzle.”
The Anti-Defamation League released a statement expressing concern over rising tensions, as some have singled out the Orthodox Jewish community as the sole population responsible for the outbreak.
“Our communities must remain united in responding to this very serious health crisis in our state,” said Evan Bernstein, the ADL’s NY/NJ regional director. “Laying blame on an entire religious group as the sole cause of this outbreak is unfair and wrong, and we urge sensitivity when discussing these issues, which clearly have a profound impact on our communities at large.”
After the state of emergency was declared in Rockland, Horowitz said many were concerned there could be “hostility and discrimination against visibly Jewish people.”
One issue is that some people who do not want to vaccinate their children for personal reasons have been seeking religious exemptions.
“There are people who have philosophical misgivings about vaccinations, and we don’t have in New York state a philosophical exemption, so the religious exemption in many, many of the cases has become a de facto philosophical exemption,” Dinowitz said.
In New Jersey
In New Jersey, legislation also has been introduced this session that would remove religious exemptions. It was approved by one Assembly committee, but hasn’t advanced further. A similar bill was introduced in 2018.
Under current state guidelines, students can opt out of immunizations if they provide a written statement signed by their parent that the proposed immunization interferes with their religious rights.
Dr. Laurence Stiefel, a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics, said that while he generally objects to imposing on religious freedoms, he feels strongly that “this is not a religious freedom we can afford. This is a public health issue and it’s obvious that everyone should be vaccinated.”
Furthermore, he asserted that as an Orthodox Jew, “I am not aware of any religious reason why you cannot be vaccinated.”
He said that many people who fear vaccines because they incorrectly believe they are linked to autism and other developmental issues choose to duck behind a religious dispensation.
Stiefel said he tries to educate his patients about the importance of vaccines but ultimately he will not see patients who refuse to vaccinate.
The vast majority of Orthodox day schools in North Jersey do not allow unvaccinated students to attend. And over the past year, several statements urging community members to vaccinate have been signed by major Jewish leaders and rabbis across the area.
L’via Weisinger, a school nurse in Bergen County who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association Vaccine Task Force, said that anti-vaxers can be found in every community around the world and that the movement shouldn’t be associated with the Jewish community.
“Some people who are philosophically opposed to vaccines have used religion as an excuse to not vaccinate their children,” she said.
As for the proposed legislation, “I think some people will say it’s a Pandora’s box that once they start infringing on this, they will start with rituals like circumcision. But I don’t think so.”
Weisinger and other Orthodox Jewish nurses have recently launched a crusade to educate members of their community who are fearful or uneducated about vaccines.
In the ultra-Orthodox communities in Rockland County and Lakewood, New Jersey, in particular, she said, “Many of them don’t vaccinate because of things that they have heard or because they were not exposed to the science. We are educating them and trying to dispel the myths.”
She pointed out that “The majority of Orthodox rabbis agree that vaccination is safe and mandatory in order to save lives. Those who don’t vaccinate do not have a religious leg to stand on.”
Rochel Leah Goldblatt writes for The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News; Deena Yellin writes for The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record. Follow Goldblatt and Yellin on Twitter: @ReporterRox and @deenayellin
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