Jump In Measles Cases Prompts Emergency Order

Fines threatened for unvaccinated Williamsburgers

City Hall declared a state of emergency Tuesday as it contends with a recent outbreak of measles centered in Brooklyn.

New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, signed on to the order, declaring a public health emergency. As of Monday, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that 285 cases of the illness had been confirmed in Brooklyn and Queens over the past six months. The majority of those affected belong to members of the boroughs’ Orthodox Jewish community.

The hardest-hit neighborhood among these has been Williamsburg, making up 80 percent of all cases. Twenty-six new cases of measles were reported there over the past week, prompting the city’s emergency order. None of the other neighborhoods that have shown signs of the disease have had new cases so far this month. To date, no deaths have been reported from the outbreak, the city’s largest since 1991.

The order will require every adult and child living, working or residing in Williamsburg to receive the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine if they have not already done so. The two-dose MMR is typically administered after a child’s first birthday, given again as children prepare to go to school. Exemptions will be made for those who can demonstrate they have an immunity to measles, or who cannot have the vaccination due to medical reasons.

As part of the order, the parent or guardian of any unvaccinated child in the neighborhood can be liable to a fine of $1,000 per instance. This also extends to adults who are found to be unvaccinated and have contracted measles.

Symptoms for this very contagious virus usually appear from 10 to 12 days after initial exposure, and include fever, cough, runny nose and reddened eyes. After the first bout of these symptoms, after three or five days the identifiable rash of red spots appears on the face and body. While anyone can become infected, infants, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable, and complications from the illness can result in pneumonia, swelling of the brain or even death.

Mayor Bill de Blasio made the declaration – in English and in Spanish – at a press conference late Tuesday morning. He was flanked by medical staff, sitting behind a sign with the slogan “Don’t Wait to Vaccinate.”

“The goal here is to send a message that people need to act immediately,” the mayor said. Without elaborating on the means, de Blasio promised help would be available for those who needed it. “Our public health system stands ready to help any New Yorker that needs the vaccine for themselves or their child. If they have insurance, they will be covered. If they don’t have insurance, they will only have to pay that which they can pay. If they cannot afford anything, it will be given to them for free. So there’s no financial reason not to get this vaccine.”

During the conference Barbot, a pediatrician, called out misinformation being spread by “antivaxxers,” people who are against vaccinations for a variety of non-medical reasons. The MMR vaccine is demonstrably safe, she said, and since the 1960s has turned a fatal disease into a preventable one.

“People are spreading different viewpoints, but some of them are clearly false and not backed up by science,” said de Blasio. “Maybe their intentions are good, but unfortunately, they are endangering people’s lives.”

Barbot added the city’s health services will be take steps to identify and reach out to individuals who may have come into contact with those who have contracted confirmed cases of measles.

While wishing New Yorkers a good Passover, which begins next Friday, De Blasio also encouraged members of the city’s Orthodox Jewish community to get vaccinated. He had a word of warning as well, aimed at the neighborhood’s private schools: “Schools that do not actively participate in helping us address this issue and do not exclude unvaccinated children, if they persist in allowing this danger to continue, we have the option of closing them for a period of time, until this crisis has passed. Again, that is not a tool we want to use, but it is one we will use if we have no choice.”

The emergency order will be in place until April 17, when the Board of Health meets next. It will then decide whether it is necessary to continue or rescind the measure. It applies to those living within the 11205, 11206, 11221 and 11249 zip codes.

Anyone wishing to contest the order may contact the health department’s general counsel, Thomas Merrill, at merrill@health.nyc.gov.

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