In an effort to stem a measles outbreak that has sickened more than 100 children, officials in Rockland County, New York, on Tuesday unveiled what appeared to be a radical plan: banning all unvaccinated minors from public places for 30 days.
The ban was, they said, unprecedented. It also apparently has no teeth: Authorities admitted they will not be chasing down those without their shots and that the declaration was primarily “educational.”
Still, the announcement is a sign of how desperate public health officials are to bring the outbreak—one of several across the country fueled by the anti-vaxxer movement— under control.
“In order to prevent any more children from falling ill with this dangerous disease, I am today declaring a county-wide state of emergency,” County Executive Ed Day said at a press conference Tuesday.
“Effective at the stroke of midnight tonight, March 27, anyone who is under 18 years of age and is unvaccinated against measles will be barred from public places until the declaration expires in 30 days, or until they receive their first shot of MMR,” Day added, clarifying that the decree wouldn’t apply to those with documented medical reasons to not vaccinate.
It sounded like a bold, aggressive counterpunch to a disease that’s swept across the country in recent months and infected hundreds of people.
“There will not be deputy sheriffs or law enforcement asking for your vaccination records,” Day said. “That is ridiculous. To repeat: that is not, nor will it ever be the focus of this effort. However, if you are found to be in violation of this declaration, your case will be referred to the district attorney’s office.”
A reporter asked how the county planned to enforce the declaration without law enforcement. Day responded that the mere existence of the law would cause people to police themselves.
“To a great degree, we’re expecting people to understand that we’re bumping up the seriousness publicly, through government regulation, and we’re expecting parents and families to realize that it’s now against the law to do it,” he said.
“We’re not a society where we’re gonna go around chasing people down,” he added. “That’s just not a viable way to go. We’re here to ensure that the Health Department completes their mission, and we’re doing it in such a way to just get attention at this point, so people understand the seriousness of what they’re doing and not doing.”
Day said the goal isn’t to prosecute: “This effort is not meant to act upon what we’re allowed to do legally, which is arrest people. We’re not looking to do that. This is really educational at this point.”
If someone was prosecuted, he said, the offense would be considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in prison or a $500 fine. If the unvaccinated individual was a minor, he added, the punishment would be borne by their parents.
Rockland County’s outbreak began, Day said, when 7 unvaccinated travelers entered the community between Oct. 1 and 17 of last year. Since that two week period, the county has faced the longest epidemic since measles was eradicated in 2000, and at least 153 people have been infected.
And while the declaration was weak on enforcement, Day had strong words for those who haven’t vaccinated their children—especially those who actively resisted investigators’ efforts to document existing cases.
“This type of response is unacceptable, and frankly irresponsible, and displays a shocking lack of responsibility and concern for others in our community,” he said.
Rockland isn’t alone. As anti-vax sentiment has risen in recent months, measles has returned with a vengeance, cropping up in states including Washington, Texas, Illinois, and California.
The Rockland County outbreak, like a similar outbreak in Brooklyn, has largely impacted the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, whose residents frequently travel to Israel, where another outbreak is ongoing. Day said his team has worked well with local Rabbis to advance the campaign, and they’ve been “supportive” of the county’s efforts.
Studies have repeatedly shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism, one of the most common claims of the anti-vaccine movement.
This isn’t Rockland’s first attempt to contain the disease. In December, the county banned all unvaccinated children from attending school. But as Brooklyn’s outbreak demonstrated, school bans aren’t always followed—earlier this month, the Department of Health publicly shamed at least 5 Brooklyn Yeshivas that allegedly defied state regulations and allowed unvaccinated kids to stay in school.
But while the new ban may lack teeth, it’s the state’s most aggressive step so far in combating the highly contagious disease. Ninety percent of unvaccinated individuals exposed to measles will develop the virus, according to the CDC—and even after months of vaccination campaigns, Day added, only 79.2 percent of the community had received the MMR vaccine.
“We owe this to the residents of our great county,” he said, “so we never, ever have to go through with this again.”