As New York’s Rockland County grapples with a large and lengthy outbreak of measles, a group of anti-vaccine parents sued officials for temporarily barring their unvaccinated children from school—and the county is not having it.
In a fiery response, Rockland County Attorney Thomas Humbach forcefully defended the legality of the county’s move, which was intended to thwart the spread of disease. He also went so far as to cast doubt on the validity of the religious exemptions the parents had used to opt their children out of required vaccinations.
“The [Rockland County Health] Commissioner, Dr. Patricia Ruppert, has every legal right, under New York State’s Public Health Law and the County’s Sanitary Code, to take every necessary step to stop the outbreak of measles in this County,” Humbach said in a statement released to the press.
“[T]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death” Humbach wrote. Moreover, he added, “[t]hese religious exemptions run the gamut from references to organized Christian doctrine to a generalized spirituality. As the case progresses, we expect several of the exemptions to be challenged, as not evincing a sincere religious belief against vaccination.”
Rockland’s battle with measles began late last September, when an international traveler arrived with a suspected case. Since then, other international travelers have arrived in the county with the extremely infectious, sometimes-fatal disease.
In all, the county has confirmed 145 cases of measles, almost all of which are in children and teens (84 percent). That includes 22 cases (15 percent) in infants less than a year old—the age when babies can receive their first dose of vaccine against measles. Overall, around 90 percent of those infected are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. The remaining 10 percent of infected people had an unknown vaccination status.
In efforts to contain the outbreak, officials issued an order in December that barred unvaccinated children from schools that did not reach a minimum of 95 percent vaccination rate. According to the order, the exclusion of unvaccinated children would end if the area went at least 21 days without a new case. With the fast pace of the outbreak, the exclusion time could be increased to 42 days.
The order affected the private Green Meadow Waldorf School. According to county records, Green Meadow’s vaccination rate was about 33 percent at the time the order was issued in December. It has since increased to about 56 percent.
In the lawsuit, 24 parents of 44 unvaccinated children that attend the school alleged that the order violated their religious objections. They also argue that the order was unnecessary because the school has not had any cases of measles and that the outbreak has largely stayed within the county’s orthodox Jewish community and affiliated schools. The Green Meadow school has no religious affiliation but sits within the area most affected by the outbreak.
“The school they attend has not experienced a single case of measles,” the parents’ attorney, Michael Sussman, told Patch. “We believe that state law forbids exclusions of students except where the school they attend has an outbreak of a communicable disease. That did not happen here.”
On Tuesday, a federal judge in the case denied issuing a temporary injunction that would allow the 44 students to return to school. “The plaintiffs have not demonstrated that public interest weighs in favor of granting an injunction,” the judge concluded. He did not immediately set the next court date for the case and reportedly told Sussman that the case may have better success in state court.
Rockland is just one of six locations in the country now experiencing a measles outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented 228 confirmed measles cases in 12 states, including New York, since the start of the year.