DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Officials have been unable to stop a measles outbreak in a suburb northwest of New York City. This has been going on for months now. And this week, officials announced they are taking extreme measures – banning unvaccinated children from indoor public spaces.
Here’s more from Gwynne Hogan from member station WNYC.
GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Outside a free vaccination clinic yesterday afternoon, Rockland County officials say they didn’t want it to come to this.
THOMAS HUMBACH: We’ve gotten to the point where people were not cooperating.
HOGAN: This is county attorney Thomas Humbach. He says people known to have had the measles went to public places. Sometimes it was hard for the department to investigate.
HUMBACH: We were getting no answers or refused answers. And at that point, it impairs the county’s ability to help the general public avoid this disease.
HOGAN: For the next 30 days, kids who don’t have the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine won’t be allowed in enclosed public spaces like malls or trains. That’s in addition to an earlier ban the county put in place in December that prevented unvaccinated kids from attending schools.
County officials say they’re not going to be proactively enforcing this latest ban. But if health department officials determine after the fact that a contagious child spread the measles in a public place to others, then the parents could face fines or jail time.
Here’s the county’s health commissioner, Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert.
PATRICIA SCHNABEL RUPPERT: What we really want is the awareness to be increased so that people say – you know what? – I’m going to get my child vaccinated. I don’t want them home from school, and I will abide by this. And if it’s important enough to have a state of emergency declared, then there must be a good reason.
HOGAN: Of the three dozen or so people who came for free vaccination, some had babies just old enough to get their shots.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just relax. OK?
HOGAN: Some were immigrants who hadn’t been vaccinated in their home countries.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Didn’t hurt?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No.
HOGAN: Others were there for a booster, like Renee Kahan, an Orthodox Jewish woman who says she was vaccinated as a kid but was recently tested again and didn’t have immunity.
RENEE KAHAN: As a responsible citizen, I came to do what I have to do. My daughter is a nurse. And she said to me, you better do this.
HOGAN: Health officials say about 28 percent of kids in the county are not vaccinated – extremely low for a virus like measles, where experts recommend upwards of 90 percent. The measles outbreak here has mostly occurred within the Orthodox Jewish community, though the county has applied its ban on unvaccinated kids in the entire area.
A group of parents of unvaccinated kids at a private school are suing for their children to be able to return to class. Paul (ph) is one of those parents. He did not want to use his last name in order to protect his child’s identity.
PAUL: The county has taken our children as hostages to force us to vaccinate.
HOGAN: There have been 155 confirmed measles cases since last October. No one has died.
For NPR News, I’m Gwynne Hogan in New Hempstead.