ALBANY — Non-medical exemptions for vaccination requirements for children were ended in New York on Thursday after fierce statehouse debate pitting religious freedom concerns against public health priorities.

The legislation was approved in the final days of the 2019 legislative session after an outbreak of measles this year in the New York City region and its suburbs.

"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," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

 

ANGRY OUTBURTS

The New York legislation came amid a national debate over the effectiveness of vaccines. The legislation ended the ability of parents to cite religious reasons as a way to prevent their children from getting inoculated.

The state requires children to receive immunizations for not only measles, but also poliomyelitis, mumps, diphtheria, rubella, hepatitis B, pertussis, tetanus and varicella before they are allowed to attend all levels of school or day care.

Following an Assembly vote that was tentatively recorded at 77-53, demonstrators opposed to mandatory vaccinations yelled threatening statements at lawmakers who advocated for the measure. The measure was approved by the Senate, 36-26.

Opponents contended the legislation went too far in rolling back religious freedoms.

"This could be a slippery slope," said Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls. "I feel that the government should stay out of personal lives."

Both he and Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, who also voted against the bill, questioned whether the exemptions were in any way involved in the outbreak of measles cases recorded in New York.

Ortt also noted that school districts had not been required to grant the religious exemptions even when families sought them.

 

MOSTLY UNVACCINATED

Four other states have done away with religious exemptions for vaccinations — Mississippi, California, West Virginia and Maine.

The New York legislation leaves intact the right of parents to seek medical exemptions, such as a child having an immune disorder, from the vaccine requirements. The children who get medical exemptions will still be able to attend public schools.

One of the legislation's sponsors, Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, noted New York has experienced 924 measles cases in the past year, the highest in the nation.

He noted that nearly 80 percent of the unvaccinated children had used the religious exemption in the 2017-2018 school year.

"We’re putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immunocompromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can’t be vaccinated through no fault of their own," Hoylman said.

The New York State School Boards Association, the Medical Society of the State of New York and the State Association of County Health officials were among influential groups that advocated for a repeal of the exemption.

In a bill memorandum, the School Boards Association said: "The growing population of unvaccinated individuals is putting community health at risk. Children who are too young, as well as people of all ages who have underlying heath conditions that prevent them being immunized, are placed at risk when they are exposed to diseases like the measles, which is a preventable disease."

 

STARK CONTRAST

Lawmakers acted on the legislation just days after a Siena College poll showed that 84 percent of New York voters registered a desire to get rid of the religious exemption in New York.

"The efforts taken today stand in stark contrast to the disturbing anti-vaccination trends nationwide and underscore New York's commitment to protecting public health," State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said.

Zucker said 96 percent of New York's schoolchildren have been inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella. He noted that the measles outbreak has been felt the most in communities where the vaccination rate is lower.

 

Email Joe Mahoney:

jmahoney@cnhi.com