A New York county has banned unvaccinated children from public spaces as it faces the worst measles outbreak in almost two decades.
Rockland County, which is about 30 miles outside of New York City, declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for its more than 300,000 residents. The ban was an unprecedented step, county executive Ed Day told reporters, but he added it was necessary to end the outbreak that has dragged on for six months and infected at least 153 people. It is the largest measles outbreak since the disease was formally declared eradicated in the US in 2000.
"This is a public health crisis, and it's time to sound the alarm and take appropriate action," Day said.
The state of emergency will be in effect for 30 days, and it's aimed at parents who are defying public health inspectors' efforts to stop the spread of disease, he said. A parent who brings their unvaccinated child under 18 years old to a business, school, house of worship, or other public building could face a misdemeanor charge carrying a sentence of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Day said local law enforcement wouldn't actively be seeking to arrest parents, but the county wanted to put new pressure on residents who were not cooperating. Initially, the measles outbreak had prompted almost 17,000 new vaccinations in the county, but that positive trend ended, Day said. Recently, some residents had hung up on health inspectors' phone calls or ordered them to stay away, and people who were infected with measles had gone into public places, such as the local mall.
"This type of response is unacceptable and frankly irresponsible," Day said. "It endangers the health and well-being of others and displays a shocking lack of concern for others in our community."
Measles can cause serious complications, including pneumonia and swelling of the brain. And though a healthy person may fight off the disease, it can be dangerous and deadly for infants and people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients or the elderly. The infection can cause miscarriages for pregnant women.
"These are the people we all need to step up for," Day said.
The outbreak began in October, when seven unvaccinated people traveled to the area from Israel. Rockland County has a large Orthodox Jewish community, and private religious schools have seen some of the highest concentrations of measles cases.
Day said many of the recent vaccinations included Orthodox children, and the health department has been communicating with local religious leaders about the outbreak as well as the new ban. In November, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America released a statement urging parents to vaccinate their children.
"When the council of rabbis tell us they want children vaccinated, it tells us it is not a religious exemption," Day said.
A free vaccine clinic was scheduled for Wednesday, and Day said he hoped the new emergency declaration would send a strong message to parents who had avoided vaccinating their children.
"This is serious. This is the law," he said. "It’s important for you to be part of the solution."