In the last seven months alone, at least 285 people have contracted measles in New York City. The outbreak has been so extreme, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in the city and ordered mandatory vaccinations for residents in four zip codes.
"This is the epicenter of a measles outbreak that is very, very troubling and must be dealt with immediately," de Blasio said. "The measles vaccine works. It is safe, it is effective, it is time-tested ... The faster everyone heeds the order, the faster we can lift it."
So, when can public officials declare health emergencies? And how can they enforce the vaccine mandate?
Under New York state statutes, a local chief executive "may proclaim a local state of emergency within any part or all of the territorial limits of such local government ... in the event of a disaster, rioting, catastrophe, or similar public emergency." Such a proclamation must be based on a finding that "the public safety is imperiled," and the emergency may only remain in effect for 30 days (although it can be renewed for another 30 days after that).
According to ABC News, 285 cases of measles have been confirmed since last October, largely in New York City's Orthodox Jewish community and involving children under 18 who either were not vaccinated at all or who had not received the required number of doses of the MMR vaccine yet. And the Washington Post reports that the city's health department ordered schools and child-care centers to prohibit unvaccinated students from attending, but not all schools complied. One that didn't has been linked to over 40 measles cases.
Breaking the Law?
Despite the majority of scientific evidence to the contrary, vaccines have become a hot-button legal and political issue, mostly based on the mistaken belief that they can cause autism. The decline in vaccination rates has led to outbreaks of preventable and dangerous diseases, and led cities and states to make vaccination mandatory. Every state requires school-aged children to receive vaccinations before starting school, with some allowable exceptions, and unvaccinated children can be barred from schools and other public and private spaces. And, in some extreme cases, parents have been jailed for not vaccinating their children.
In New York City, anyone who refuses the vaccination order could be fined up to $1,000, and yeshivas in the affected areas of Williamsburg could face violations and possible closure if non-vaccinated students are allowed to attend.
If you have questions about mandatory vaccination laws and possible exceptions, contact a local health care attorney for help.