Measles outbreak: City declares public health emergency with 285 confirmed cases
Mayor orders mandatory vaccinations in Williamsburg
New York City declared a public health emergency Tuesday morning, ordering mandatory measles vaccinations for residents in parts of Williamsburg as the number of confirmed cases for the infection rose to 285 since Sept. 30.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said individuals and parents who ignore the order will be fined up to $1,000 and that “disease detectives” would question them. The outbreak is primarily affecting the Orthodox Jewish community.
“Our goal is not to fine people or shut down schools,” de Blasio said. “Our goal is to vaccinate people. We have the tools available now because of this emergency order to fine — and fine very substantially. But if people just go and get vaccinated, there is no need for a fine.”
“If people ignore our order,” he added, “We will issue fines.”
As part of the declaration, every unvaccinated person living in the ZIP codes 11205, 11206, 11211 and 11249 — regardless of whether they have been exposed to the infection — are required to receive the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to stymie the outbreak.
To encourage immunization, the city has created the slogan, “Don’t wait. Vaccinate.” De Blasio said the outbreak “can be turned around quickly” if residents act quickly.
“If people ignore our order, we will issue fines.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio
“The overwhelming problem is Williamsburg,” De Blasio said. “This is a challenge we see in Brooklyn. In other boroughs we’ve seen no cases. It’s much more a Williamsburg problem than a Borough Park problem.”
The vaccine is 97 percent effective, according to Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot, and if someone is exposed to the disease, he or she has a three-day window to still get vaccinated and limit the damage. Non-immune pregnant women are at particular risk, she said.
Of the 285 confirmed cases, 246 are children and 39 are adults. Twenty-one people have been hospitalized since the outbreak started with five people being admitted to the intensive care unit.
De Blasio said the number of confirmed cases in Williamsburg has ballooned since Purim and that there are concerns that the disease will continue to spread as families come together to celebrate Passover.
“We urge everyone who can get vaccinated to get vaccinated,” Barbot said. “As Passover is coming up, it’s important that all New Yorkers get vaccinated especially if they plan to travel overseas to Europe or Israel.”
The first Brooklyn child with measles acquired the infection on a visit to Israel, where a large outbreak is occurring, according to the New York City Health Department.
“Measles are highly dangerous and contagious,” Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose district includes Williamsburg, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I urge everyone to get vaccinated. I am committed to working with the health department, the mayor, and community leaders in addressing this urgent health crisis.
“This is about protecting our communities and each other — we cannot wait until someone dies for us to act.”
The number of confirmed cases has increased dramatically since 2017, when there were only two confirmed cases. In 2018, there were 56 instances and there have been more than 225 cases already this year. “The problem has mounted quickly,” de Blasio said.
“We cannot wait until someone dies for us to act.”
Councilmember Stephen Levin
Barbot said 8,000 people have been vaccinated since Sept. 30.
Barbot cited a group of “anti-vaxxers” who are seeking to undermine the public health emergency.
“To challenge the dangerous misinformation that is being spread by a group of anti-vaxxers, it’s crucial that everyone around them be vaccinated to shield them from infection,” Barbot said.
Barbot said 500 people would die each year in the ’60s before there was a vaccine.
“We’re concerned about families having measles parties,” she said. “Back in the day people were having parties to expose their kids to chicken pox and measles. We live in a different world now.”
The announcement comes a day after DOH threatened to close Williamsburg yeshivas that allow unvaccinated students to attend school in light of the epidemic.
Since October, the city has barred all kids who don’t have the vaccine from attending school, including the private yeshivas.
A 2013 measles outbreak in the Hasidic Jewish areas of Borough Park and Williamsburg cost the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene nearly $400,000, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.
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