Governor signs law eliminating religious exemptions for school vaccinations

Photo courtesy of Sen. Brad Hoylman’s Office, New York State Senate
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new law on June 13, 2019 to end non-medical exemptions for vaccinations of schoolchildren in New York state following one of the worst measles outbreaks in decades. Since October 1, 2018, the Department of Health has worked closely with local officials to launch an unprecedented public health response to the current measles outbreak—the largest in New York State since 1991.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation removing non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements for children.

The U.S. is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of measles in more than 25 years, with outbreaks in pockets of New York primarily driving the crisis.

As a result of non-medical vaccination exemptions, many communities across New York have low rates of vaccination, and those unvaccinated children can often attend school where they may spread the disease to other unvaccinated students.

The governor and lawmakers hope this new law will help protect the public amid this ongoing outbreak.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, sustaining a high vaccination rate among school children is vital to the prevention of disease outbreaks, including the reestablishment of diseases that have been largely eradicated in the United States, such as measles.

According to state data from 2013-2014, there are at least 285 schools in New York with an immunization rate below 85%, including 170 schools below 70 percent, far below the CDC’s goal of at least a 95 percent vaccination rate to maintain herd immunity.

The bill (S.2994A/A.2371), sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, would repeal exemptions currently found in the law for children whose parents have non-medical objections to immunizations.

“The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe. This administration has taken aggressive action to contain the measles outbreak, but given its scale, additional steps are needed to end this public health crisis,” Governor Cuomo said. “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

Hoylman, the Senate sponsor of the bill said, “Today, New York is sending a strong message to people across our state that vaccines are safe and effective. We’re putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immuno-compromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can’t be vaccinated through no fault of their own.

Dinowitz, the Assembly sponsor, said, “I am incredibly proud that science has won with the passage of this bill. We should be taking medical advice from medical professionals, not strangers on the Internet spreading pseudo-science misinformation. This will not be the end of our efforts to combat the ongoing measles outbreak, but it is an important step. I hope that we can move forward from here, with level heads, and work together to protect the health of New Yorkers – particularly those with compromised immune systems and those who are too young to be vaccinated.”

Although the state can claim high immunization rates overall, preventable diseases like measles remain a public health threat when administrative loopholes allow children to go unvaccinated, carrying the potential to harm communities—and especially our most vulnerable residents—throughout the state.

Statewide, 96 percent of school-age children have been inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella, with the “MMR” vaccine, but a measles outbreak continues to affect communities in several parts of the state where the rate is lower. New York State currently allows both medical and religious exemptions to the MMR and other vaccines for students attending school.

Since October 1, 2018, the Department of Health has worked with local officials to launch an unprecedented public health response to the current measles outbreak—the largest in New York State since 1991.

School and daycare exclusions issued by the Department of Health have proven effective in ensuring parents get their children vaccinated with MMR. The Department of Health’s ongoing efforts, including messaging about the importance of vaccinations in several languages, have resulted in a drastic uptick in vaccinations. Since the measles outbreak began last fall, more than 49,000 doses of the MMR vaccination have been administered in Rockland, Orange and Westchester Counties.