A New York county is banning children who have not been vaccinated against measles from visiting public places — the latest and most dramatic attempt to stop preventable measles outbreaks in communities across the country.
Rockland County Executive Ed Day declared a state of emergency related to the measles outbreak and announced the public places ban during a press conference Tuesday, saying officials “will not sit idly by as children in our community are at risk.”
The move follows previous attempts to limit Rockland’s ongoing measles outbreak, which as of March 21 totaled 151 confirmed cases in communities including Spring Valley, New Square and Monsey. The county health department previously asked parents not to send unvaccinated children to school, NBC New York reports, and is offering free MMR vaccines to those who need them. Day called the new policy — believed to be the first of its kind in the country — an “attention grab” meant to “step up our game,” in light of continuing cases and resistance to the efforts of health inspectors.
Measles, a highly contagious virus that comes with symptoms including fever, cough and rash, was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, but pockets of vaccine skepticism across the U.S. have allowed the preventable illness to come creeping back. In addition to Rockland, outbreaks have been reported in New York City and the Pacific Northwest. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 314 cases of measles in 15 states in 2019.
While every state requires certain vaccinations for children before they enroll in school, most currently allow exemptions for families with personal or philosophical objections to vaccination. States with particularly widespread exemptions, such as Washington, have seen high numbers of measles cases.
The resurgence of measles has bred dueling responses from lawmakers. Some have joined public health officials in advocating for near-universal vaccination and moving to limit exemptions for all but medical reasons, while others are actually trying to make it easier for parents to opt out of vaccine requirements. In February, outgoing Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said the federal government might someday intervene, if lax state laws continue to allow for outbreaks.
As of midnight on Wednesday, in Rockland County, unvaccinated individuals younger than 18 may not visit public places such as shopping centers, restaurants, schools and houses of worship until they receive at least one measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, or until the emergency declaration expires in 30 days. Unvaccinated individuals also should not visit hospitals unless they are seeking treatment there; those individuals are directed to call ahead, officials said.
Day said during the press conference that the county’s Orthodox Jewish community has been particularly hard-hit by the outbreak, but said the ban does not infringe on religious rights since members of the Orthodox Jewish faith are not directed to avoid vaccination. Religious leaders have also supported vaccination efforts, Day said.
While Day said law enforcement officials will not be checking individuals’ vaccination status, and are not looking to arrest people, he said those found to be in violation of the order will be referred to the district attorney’s office. A violation will be considered a low-level misdemeanor, translating to six months in jail or a $500 fine, Day said. Parents will be held accountable for their children, he added.
“We are urging [parents] once again, now with the authority of law, to get your children vaccinated,” Day said. “We must not allow this outbreak to continue indefinitely or worsen again.”