As the new school year approaches, doctors and school districts are preparing for the impact of the new law eliminating religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.
The New York State Legislature narrowly passed, and Gov. Cuomo signed into law on June 13, the elimination of non-medical exemptions to requirements for vaccinations for students to attend school, joining California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia.
The New York law grew out of a major outbreak of measles centered mostly in Brooklyn.
“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.”
The percentage of students who claimed a religious exemption in the 2018-2018 school year varies widely from district to district, according to the New York State Health Foundation.
A group of parents filed a suit in July against the ban, saying it violated their religious beliefs, but their argument was rejected by a judge. Some have attacked politicians who voted for the mandate, saying that vaccines had harmed their children, or saying the law will force their children out of schools. Some say it is their constitutional right to oppose a government mandate.
The requirements apply to both private and public schools.
The law had near-immediate effect: school districts hustled to notify students who had not been vaccinated of the requirements so they could begin scheduling the series of vaccines before classes begin again in September. The law means that schools no longer have to judge the legitimacy of claims for exemption on a case by case basis.
Despite concerns, some parents are complying with the new mandate, booking appointments for children who have had few or no vaccinations.
Dr. Lauren Kupersmith, a Huntington pediatrician, said, “We are definitely starting to see parents come in. The schools are giving them some time to catch up. They are starting to come in for pre-school and elementary school. We’re getting a lot of calls this summer, making sure kids are ready for kindergarten.”
The NYU-Langone physician describes many parents of unvaccinated children as “hesitant, not anti-vaccine. Some are delaying the vaccine until their kids enter school, which allows the disease time to resurface” in the community.
The increase in the number of vaccines has also concerned some parents. “We do have more vaccines than we did 20 or 30 years ago,” Kupersmith said. “I just tell people our kids are lucky that they don’t have chicken pox.”
Several doctors interviewed stated their firm belief in the science and medical value of vaccines while also showing empathy for parents suddenly confronted by the mandate they oppose. And some see a generational difference, with parents or grandparents, who grew up in the 1950s or 1960s when polio was a major threat, often more supportive of vaccines than younger parents who were themselves vaccinated and therefore immune to many diseases.
Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer of Huntington Hospital and chair of the pediatrics department, said of the new law, “This move was part of our state’s ongoing effort to stem the tide of a measles outbreak that is solely the result of anti-immunization sentiment. The so-called anti-vax movement has successfully sowed doubt among so many young families using pseudo-science and misinformation about vaccine safety.
“It was very important to eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions at the same time, since the relationship between these categories has been so murky.
“Legislation of this kind has been strongly supported by medical experts nationally, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians and other respected groups.
“The pediatricians in our community have absolutely seen the impact of this legislation. Since June, a good part of every practitioner’s day is being occupied by giving catch-up immunizations. I take it as a good sign that some offices are actually running out of vaccines – the positive effect on immunization has been that strong.
“On the other hand, these mandates have caused many vaccine-reluctant parents real distress. I’ve personally spent time just counseling parents who know their children need to get up to date, but are afraid of MMR and other vaccines. We pediatricians feel real empathy for these parents, who feel they are acting in their children’s best interest. Unfortunately, they’ve been scared by the internet, their friends and all the myths that have been circulated about vaccine side effects.
“Research into vaccine reluctance has taught us how ineffective we have been in countering misinformation with facts. Studies have shown us that for a significant number of patients, this just doesn’t work. More than 50 published studies have documented that measles vaccine has no impact on the risk of developmental disabilities such as autism. Clearly, we don’t need more data. What we do need now is respectful, ongoing conversation and reassurance. The fact is, not one medication we use in medicine is literally 100% safe. But the real risks of vaccines are completely different from the fictional ones, and much rarer than vaccine opponents assert. The biggest risk to the health of our children, by far, is being under-immunized.”
The Huntington school district has posted this FAQ about vaccine requirements.
Several local doctors said they expect the pace of vaccination questions and office visits to pick up as the opening day of school nears.
Religious Exemption Rate by School/Suffolk County
New York Health FoundationSuffolkVaccinations