Over a dozen Rockland County rabbis published a Kol Koreh last Friday urging community members to get fully immunized against polio. The rabbis called on “everyone, without exception, to follow [medical professional] guidelines.” They emphasized the vaccine’s safety, noting the shot “has been in use for over 70 years and has passed the test of time.”
This response comes after New York State Department of Health (NYSDH) officials detected the virus in samples of Sullivan County wastewater. The identified sample adds to a growing pile of positive samples found in the state in recent weeks; earlier this summer, the virus was detected in Orange and Rockland County waste systems. Considering the spread timeline for polio, the NYSDH is looking at a likelihood of hundreds of cases in circulation, though until cases results in characteristic paralysis, many will not even know they have been infected.
This is due to polio’s tendency toward what is called “silent spread.” Seventy percent remain asymptomatic, never aware that they’re carrying the virus. The majority who do present symptoms will only experience light or mild flu-like symptoms. They likely won’t be tested for polio even if they go to a doctor; the oldest practicing physicians today have never dealt with a case since the disease was all but eradicated by the vaccine in the 60s. A young unvaccinated Jewish man in Rockland contracted paralytic polio in June, the first confirmed case in the U.S. in nearly a decade. NYSDH officials worry he is just the tip of the iceberg.
Dr. Alisa Minkin, the host of the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association podcast and part of their preventative health committee, describes how this newest threat is eliciting mixed reactions in the community.
“There’s a combination of ‘I can’t believe this is back,’ and ‘I can’t trust anything anymore.’” She sees a greater understanding of the seriousness of polio, given that there are still survivors around. “But Covid eroded trust, and that’s a big problem.”
The Kol Koreh represents a shift in community engagement on the subject of immunizations and disease outbreaks. “The CDC is very cognizant that they’ve lost public faith,” explains Shoshana Bernstein of SB Writing and Communications and a local vaccine educator. “They understand they need to restructure, and one thing they’re doing is pivoting funding to community members who understand the language of [affected] communities.”
Part of this change is found in public flyers distributed around Rockland describing the dangers polio presents in English, Spanish, Yiddish, and Creole. “Everyone is committed to getting this message out,” says Bernstein.
The Kol Koreh reflects this broader push, with signatures from leaders of congregations encompassing 20 Monsey-area communities, emphasizing Yeshivishe and Litvishe demographics. While some Chassidishe kehilos are represented on the call to action, there is an expectation that a strong, unified response to the virus from the area Chassidishe groups is in the works.
Rockland, Orange, and Sullivan Counties have some of the lowest polio vaccination rates in the state. An August 1 statement from NYSDH noted that only 60.5% of Rockland two-year-olds are fully vaccinated against the disease. For comparison, nationally, the numbers are significantly higher, at 92%.
The lower numbers reflect a large movement for deferred vaccination. Some parents push vaccination off until five when they’re required for school. “It’s understandable,” Bernstein acknowledges. “Parents erroneously feel it’s better to wait or spread out immunizations. But it’s created an entire demographic of young children who are at risk for a preventable disease…. It’s literally rolling the dice with [a] child’s life.”
A full list of the Kol Koreh signatories includes Rabbi Betzalel Rudinsky (Cong. Ahavas Yitzchok), Rabbi Chaim Schabes (Cong. Knesses Yisroel), Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger (Cong. Shaarei Tefillah, New Hemstead), Rabbi Aaron Dovid Willner (Cong. Shaarei Tefillah, Forshay), Rabbi Ari Senter (Cong. Kehillas Yesharim), Rabbi Osher Dovid May (Rosh Kollel Beis Tefillah), Rabbi Avrohom Kahan (Khal of New City), Rabbi Benzion Kokis (Khal Zichron Mordechai), Rabbi Doniel Coren (Bais Medash Ohr Chaim), Rav Yisroel Saperstein (Cong. Ohaiv Shalom), Rabbi Yeshaya Y. Levy (Khal Bais Elazar Zichron Moshe), Rabbi Shimon Kerner (Kehillas New Hemstead), Rabbi Yisroel Chesir (Khal Bais Avigdor), Rabbi Ari Levitan (Khal Tiferes Tefillah), Rabbi Ari Jacobson (Young Israel of Wesley Hills), Binyomin Zvi Stienberg (Khal Torah U’Tefilah of New City), Rabbi Chaim Shochet (Khal Anshei Sefard), Rabbi Yosef Greenwald (Khal Dexter Park), Rabbi Yosef Viener (Cong. Shaar Hashamayim), and Rabbi Dovid Apter (Khal Zichron Michoel).