3d illustration Measles virus

New York State lawmakers passed a package of bills repealing the religious exemption for vaccines on Thursday amid a measles outbreak that has swept through Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities and infected almost 1,000 people statewide.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bills from both legislative chambers into law, which will require children across the state to get vaccinated against a slate of illnesses before they can attend schools at all levels from day care to high school, in order to stem the ongoing epidemic caused by a spread of fear-mongering and false information, according to one of the legislation’s lead sponsors.

“It is our responsibility as lawmakers to ensure that we take responsible action, not only to combat misinformation, but to protect the health and well-being of all New Yorkers,” state Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) said. “Scientific evidence and medical experts overwhelmingly support the benefits of vaccination. Vaccination gives us the power to protect ourselves, our children, and our neighbors from highly contagious, potentially life-threatening diseases.”

The bill, sponsored by state Assemb. Jeff Dinowitz (D-Bronx) and Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), passed less than a week ahead of the end of legislative session on June 19 and will mandate that all children in the state who are medically able have to get immunized against a host of illnesses, including measles, mumps, hepatitis B, and others.

The bill will protect New Yorkers who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons and send a message that vaccines are safe and effective in controlling the spread of contagious diseases, according to Hoylman.

“Today, the state Senate is sending a strong message to New Yorkers that vaccines are safe and effective,” the pol said in a statement. “We’re putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immunocompromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can’t be vaccinated through no fault of their own.”

State law previously allowed parents to opt their kids out of the mandatory vaccinations using religious exemptions, but lawmakers sprang into action after one of the largest measles epidemics in the country swept across the Empire State beginning last fall.

To date, 924 people statewide have been infected with the highly-contagious pathogen, with 571 of those in Brooklyn, concentrated primarily in the borough’s Orthodox Jewish communities in Williamsburg and Borough Park, according to data by the city and state departments of health. One person was diagnosed in Suffolk County.

Just this week, the city shut down three Williamsburg yeshivas — one of them a repeat offender — for admitting unvaccinated students and staff, despite an April 9 order by Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot requiring all people living, working, or going to school in certain northern Brooklyn postal codes to get the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine or face a $1,000 fine.

One legislator criticized the new law, saying that it violated the First Amendment by limiting religious freedom.

“I am in favor of, and continue to advocate for widespread vaccination. However, the separation of Church and State as guaranteed by the First Amendment is a cornerstone of our Democracy,” said state Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes Borough Park, where city health officials have confirmed 100 cases of the illness so far.

The legislator added in an emailed statement to this paper that the new law marked a slippery slope, particularly in times of increased hate crimes and rising anti-Semitism across the state.

“Any detraction of religious liberty by the state sets a dangerous precedent,” he said. “Especially in these times, passing a law that eliminates free exercise of religious rights would set us down a slippery slope. The state has many tools available to manage this outbreak that stop short of tampering with religious freedom.”

The law previously met with opposition by a small group of anti-vaxxers who protested a rally held by Hoylman and his colleagues in support of the bill at City Hall on May 29, with one anti-vaxxer claiming that the small number of religious exemptions did not impact the spread of measles.

“It’s outrageous to try and take our religious exemptions away, when we make up less than half of 1 percent of the unvaccinated population,” said Queens resident Adreana Rodriguez told this paper.

But a similar law which state legislators passed in California last year — which the New York bill was modeled after — led to an increase in immunization there and Hoylman said at the May rally that anti-vaxxers use the religious exemption as a loophole, despite their objections being rooted in junk science — not faith.

“The religious exemption is a loophole,” said the Manhattan lawmaker. “It is masking someone’s conspiracy against vaccinations, and it needs to be closed.”

One of the main claims by anti-vaxxers is that vaccines cause autism, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has proven to be untrue.

In response to the outbreak, officials on Long Island have urged residents to get vaccinated.

“Recognizing that New York City has declared a public health emergency, we want to urge residents to be aware of symptoms and take precautions in advance of upcoming holiday travel,” said Nassau County Executive Laura Curran.  “The health and safety of our residents is top priority. While there hasn’t been a case in Nassau County since 2013, I want to urge residents to get vaccinated. The measles vaccine works. It is time-tested, safe and effective against this potentially fatal and easily spread disease.”

-With Timothy Bolger.

Originally published in Brooklyn Paper

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