ALBANY — State lawmakers on Thursday voted to eliminate non-medical vaccine exemptions for children attending public schools and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law minutes later.
Currently, parents of children seeking to attend public schools can cite religious beliefs to avoid vaccinations required by the state Department of Education.
Legislators were spurred into action by a measles outbreak that state and federal health officials say is the worst in nearly 30 years.
Oswego County’s representatives, while saying they support vaccination efforts in general, did not support the bill.
“It was a really hard vote,” said Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski. “I went into the chamber expecting to support the bill. Ultimately, I voted no because I felt the bill was overly broad for what it was trying to accomplish.”
The issue has spurred contentious, often emotional debate. Detractors claim religious freedom is being curtailed against while supporters warn public health is being endangered.
“I believe in the importance of immunization to help safeguard our children from disease and have been proud to support funding and initiatives expanding access to preventive care and treatment for every child,” said state Senator Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.
Ritchie noted she voted this week in support of a bill aimed increasing awareness and educating parents and families on the value of properly immunizing children. She said, however, protecting the rights of each and every parent to make the medical choices that they believe are best for their own children is equally important, especially when strongly held religious beliefs are a factor.
“This right is so fundamental that it is recognized by the vast majority of states, including, until the passage of this bill, New York,” Ritchie said.
According to Associated Press reporter David Klepper, after the vote in the Assembly, many of those watching from the gallery erupted in cries of “shame!” One woman yelled obscenities down to the lawmakers below.
Videos widely circulated showed a near-chaotic scene at the state capitol Thursday, with anti-vaccination activists badgering lawmakers in and out of chambers.
Despite his ‘no’ vote, Barclay was unequivocal in his stance regarding vaccination.
“I strongly believe in vaccinations and encourage everyone to have their children vaccinations,” Barclay said.
Assemblyman Brian Manktelow similarly said his decision was “one of my toughest votes.”
“I gave it a lot of thought and weighed the pros and cons and I voted no,” said Manktelow. “We have our First Amendment rights and I don’t want anyone to ever lose them and once we start ripping at it, we hurt those freedoms.”
Another reason for opposing the bill, Manketelow said, was his opinion that the law failed to address other, similarly pressing issues.
“We’re bringing undocumented people into the country and no one’s checking them for what vaccinations they had before they get here,” said Manktelow. “If we’re truly worried about the districts and schools — in the schools I checked with, they don’t see if teachers, bus drivers, custodians, and other personnel are vaccinated.”
Manktelow said he would rather see a bill that “covers it all” and “if we’re really going to protect children, let’s do it the right way.”
On the question of whether he believes all children should be vaccinated, Manktelow said it was a “decision between the parent and the child.”
“When you take away that right from the parents, where does it stop? My kids were vaccinated, I was vaccinated, but it’s a choice of the parents. I want that decision to be made by the parents, not the government,” Manktelow said.
Local experts say vaccinations provide an enormous benefit and rumored dangers are overblown.
“There’s years and years of evidence that vaccines help save lives, protect children and protect the public,” said Jodi Martin, supervising public health nurse for preventative services at the Oswego County Health Department. “They’re the best source of protection we have out there and it’s always best to protect your children and the people around your children.”
Martin said it’s “never too late if your child isn’t vaccinated” and the Oswego County Health Department preventative services office is available to answer any vaccine-related concerns or questions at 315-349-3547.
Supporters also suggest some parents may be claiming the religious exemption for their children even though their opposition is actually based on scientifically discredited claims about the dangers of vaccines.
The bill would not change an existing state exemption given to children who cannot have vaccines for medical reasons, such as a weakened immune system.
“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,” 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.”
California removed personal belief vaccine exemptions for children in both public and private schools in 2015, after a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 147 people and spread across the U.S. and into Canada. Maine ended its religious exemption earlier this year.
Mississippi and West Virginia also do not allow religious exemptions.
State medical associations were quick to release statements in support of the legislation.
"To be clear, nothing in this legislation impedes or limits personal rights. The entire purpose of this initiative is to protect the general public, including vulnerable children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, from highly contagious diseases," said Marc Price, DO, president of the New York State Academy of Family Physicians. "It is good public health and common sense and today the leadership and actions by the Legislature and governor will protect countless babies, children and those who cannot be immunized for medical reasons. We are proud to stand in support of this measure.”
Once common in the U.S., measles became rare after vaccination campaigns that started in the 1960s. A decade ago, there were fewer than 100 cases a year.