In a county at the epicenter of New York’s worst measles outbreak in decades, a group of parents are pushing to get their children back in school. The problem? The children aren’t vaccinated.
Normally, children and their families are able to claim a religion-based exemption from required vaccinations. But Rockland County’s health department has said these are not normal times. Across New York, there have been more than 300 confirmed measles cases, more than 150 in New York City and 146 in nearby Rockland County. In Rockland, most of the cases were found in those who were unvaccinated and under the age of 18.
In December, the alarming outbreak compelled county officials to take the drastic — and, they say, unprecedented — step of banning unvaccinated children from attending certain schools that had vaccination rates lower than 95 percent.
Months later, the parents of more than 40 banned children at Green Meadow Waldorf School sued the Rockland County health department, asking a federal judge to allow the students to return to class. This week, U.S. District Court Judge Vincent Briccetti denied their request, ruling it wasn’t in “public interest” to allow the children to go back to school.
“While no one enjoys the fact that these kids are out of school, these orders have worked,” said the county’s attorney, Thomas Humbach, in a statement to the local Journal News. “They have helped prevent the measles outbreak from spreading to this school population.”
But the parents have said the ban, which the county calls an “exclusion order,” has “caused and continues to cause irreparable harm” to them and their children, according to the lawsuit.
For the children, the order has disrupted both their school and social lives, the filing says. In the parents’ case, their “intimate, constitutionally protected life choices . . . have been trammeled.”
“What Rockland County has done is remarkably irrational in every conceivable way,” Michael Sussman, the parents’ lawyer, told the Times.
But officials worry that the school’s proximity to the outbreak puts its students at greater risk.
The county’s consternation is part of a broad, national concern over the anti-vaccination movement, punctuated by severe measles outbreaks from the Pacific Northwest, to South Carolina and New York. The World Health Organization even dubbed “vaccine hesitancy” one of the top global threats of 2019.
In dramatic Capitol Hill testimony last week, 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger, now famous for getting vaccinated against his mother’s wishes, warned about the dangers of anti-vaccine misinformation, which, studies have shown, spreads quickly through social media sites.
After Lindenberger’s appearance, Facebook announced its plan for combating anti-vaccine propaganda and false information on its platform. Google and Amazon have taken similar steps.
States have also taken measures to ensure minors have access to vaccination. In South Carolina, Oregon and elsewhere, patients under 18 are allowed to ask for vaccinations without parental approval. In New York, two state lawmakers introduced a similar bill and gained support from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"Often adolescents and young adults have a clearer grasp of what kinds of health care decisions make the most sense for them,” the New York chapters of the academy said in a statement to the Associated Press. “These young people have a right to protect themselves from diseases that can easily be prevented by immunizations.”
At Green Meadow, the vaccination rate was just 33 percent when the December ban took effect, the Journal News reported, citing the county’s data. Since then, the county said it has risen to 56 percent, though a school’s spokeswoman told the Times the share was actually 83 percent — either way, short of the mandated threshold.
The school is complying with the county health department’s order, its spokeswoman said, and will welcome its students back when it is legally allowed.
In the meantime, though, the children — some of whom are as young as preschool age — just have to wait until the outbreak clears. One mother, who has chosen to keep her 4-year-old unvaccinated, told local media that her child is distressed.
"“He is confused,” she said, “given his young age, about why he isn’t allowed on his campus.”