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New York Lawmakers Say Close Vaccination Loophole As Measles Outbreak Grows

Senator David Carlucci speaks alongside state and local lawmakers at the Capitol in Albany on Monday, calling for a law to tighten exemptions for vaccinations.

The CDC reports that cases of measles nationwide has grown to over 700, and is the worst outbreak in decades. New York’s Rockland County has over 200 of those cases, and New York State legislators are calling for immediate passage of a bill to mandate vaccinations, unless a person has a medical exemption.

The lawmakers say the current law, which allows a child to skip vaccinations because of religious reasons, is creating too big a loophole and leading to what they say is a growing health crisis.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day tried unsuccessfully to declare a state of emergency in his county, but it was overturned in court. Day, a Republican, says the bill is a “godsend.”

“To wait is a recipe for medical disaster,” Day said. “I can’t be more clear than that.”

The outbreak began in Rockland County last October, after seven infected travelers from Israel visited New York’s ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in the county and in Brooklyn, and the illness spread. 

Day was at the State Capitol, along with the Assembly and Senate sponsors of a bill to require all children be immunized against measles and other diseases, unless they have a medical exemption.   

Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democrat, blames the outbreak on the anti-vaccination moment, which he says has been discredited by scientific research. He says vaccinations have saved millions of lives.

“Measles can kill. Measles can cause permanent harm – blindness, deafness, brain damage,” Dinowitz said. “It’s unbelievable that in this day and age in the 21st century there are people out there who are spreading lies and misinformation about vaccinations.

Dinowitz says no major religion has a policy against vaccinations, and believes people are citing the religious exemption when their opposition actually stems from personal reasons.

“The religious exemption is a de facto personal belief exemption,” he said. “When in fact it has nothing to do with religion.”  

Governor Andrew Cuomo has also voiced objections to the bill although not on scientific grounds, saying there might be First Amendment issues involved.

The bill sponsors say they are talking to Cuomo about his reservations. Senator Hoylman says he believes the requirement would be constitutional.

“There is a long history of case law supporting elimination of non-medical exemptions,” said Hoylman, who said a similar measure in California was upheld in the courts.  

Cuomo, speaking on Long Island Monday, revised his position, saying he now backs an end to religious exemptions for vaccinations for this particular outbreak.

“I do not think, in this case, the religious exemption is appropriate,” Cuomo said.

But the governor did not say whether he supports the bill.

Cuomo says health officials in his administration are working with Rockland County and New York City to address what he says is a “public health emergency.”

Hoylman and other supporters of the measure say they don’t know if there are enough votes in the legislature to pass the bill into law. But they say they hope to garner enough support to have a law by summer. Senator James Skoufis, who represents portions of Rockland County, says, if that doesn’t happen, things could get much worse.

“In a couple of months, everyone’s on summer vacation,” Skoufis said. “And we’re going to have infected children, infected families traveling all around this state, all around this country, infecting other New Yorkers and other Americans. We have to act now.”

In the meantime, the Senate has begun a public awareness campaign about the importance of vaccinations.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.