Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / diluvi.com, Anna i Adria
Chassidic Jews in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

by Ziona Greenwald
Jewish Press Staff Writer

They must have seen this coming: New York City’s attempt to compel vaccination among residents of Williamsburg – where the incidence of measles in the city has been most concentrated – is being challenged in court.

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A group of Brooklyn parents from the affected zip codes filed a lawsuit on Monday in Kings County Supreme Court against the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and its commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, assailing the mandatory vaccination requirement which followed Mayor de Blasio’s declaration of a public health emergency on April 9.

On Tuesday, a judge denied the parents’ request for a temporary restraining order. The city was set to file response papers and a further hearing to be held on Thursday, April 18, before Hon. Lawrence Knipel, who is also the court’s administrative judge for civil cases.

In their petition to block health officials from enforcing the vaccination order, the five anonymous parents from the heavily chassidic neighborhoods claim they have a right to send their children to school without vaccinating because of the state’s “religious exemption,” that the current uptick in measles infection falls short of an epidemic, that the required three-in-one MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine subjects their families to additional risks, and that less drastic steps – such as quarantining those infected – could have been taken instead.

The city’s targeted vaccination mandate “fail[s] to use the least restrictive means that would likely control measles yet balance the rights to individual autonomy, informed consent and free exercise of religion,” the parents allege.

“The respondents have taken these dramatic steps without a blueprint for implementation, itself suggesting that a true public health emergency does not exist.”

The city had said that failure to comply with the 48-hour vaccination order – which covered all residents of zip codes 11205, 11206, 11211, and 11249, ages six months and older – would constitute a violation and could result in a fine of up to $1,000, although it’s unclear what enforcement would look like.

On Monday, the United Talmudical Academy childcare preschool in Williamsburg was ordered closed by the city health department due to its repeated refusal to turn over attendance and health records documenting vaccination compliance.

Read: Brooklyn Jewish Preschool Closed by Health Dept for Violation of Measles Vaccine Order

As of last week, New York City health officials had reported 285 measles cases since the fall, most in children under 18; 21 have been hospitalized, five in intensive care units. The petitioners pointed to the lack of reported deaths as a sign that this is not a serious outbreak.

Responding to the filing, the city maintained that a true outbreak exists and that “attempts at education and persuasion have failed to stop the spread of measles.”

In December, the city banned unvaccinated children from attending schools in the hotspot neighborhoods, but the mayor, in issuing the vaccine mandate, said the earlier move had not been effective enough.

A spokesperson for the city’s law department said in a statement that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the right of municipalities to compel vaccination in the midst of outbreaks.

“We had to take this additional action to fulfill our obligation to ensure that individuals do not continue to put the health of others at risk,” he stated. It is likely no coincidence that one of the attorneys listed for the petitioning parents is Patricia Finn, who won an injunction earlier this month on behalf of anti-vax parents in Rockland County, after challenging County Executive Ed Day’s order banning unvaccinated children from schools and all public places.

Meanwhile, a group of doctors “who faithfully serve the Orthodox communities of North America,” according to their website ( http://drsforvaax.org/ ) has already enlisted over 500 doctors to sign an online petition urging community members “to receive all recommended VACCINATIONS.”

The petition reads, in part:
           
“We are aware of the dangerous misinformation campaign being spread and reject any unproven unscientific statements that contradict all available current science-based studies on vaccinations.

“It is an individual and communal responsibility to work together in the effort to prevent harmful diseases from spreading.”

Rockland County in upstate New York is currently threatening a $2,000 per day fine for those who violate a countywide order to vaccinate for measles.

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