New York Vaccine Bill Ends Religious Exemptions

by Valerie Williams
Newsday LLC/Getty

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signs bill that will prevent religious vaccine exemptions in the state

In the midst of America’s worst measles outbreak in decades, some states are taking action to ensure that the most people possible are immunized to stop further spread of (totally preventable) diseases. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, has now signed a bill that will prevent religious exemptions from vaccines.

“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,” the governor said in a statement.

“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,” he continued.

Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz said, “I am incredibly proud that science has won with the passage of this bill. We should be taking medical advice from medical professionals, not strangers on the internet spreading pseudo-science misinformation. This will not be the end of our efforts to combat the ongoing measles outbreak, but it is an important step. I hope that we can move forward from here, with level heads, and work together to protect the health of New Yorkers – particularly those with compromised immune systems and those who are too young to be vaccinated.”

The bill removes the ability for parents of kids in school to refuse vaccines under a religious objection and goes into effect right away in the state of New York. Cuomo signed the bill as the country grapples with its worst measles outbreak in years with the CDC confirming a record 1,001 cases in 2019 nationwide as of early this month. Many of those cases are concentrated in certain New York communities with populations of Orthodox Jewish families who interpret Jewish law as banning vaccines. The New York Times reports that around 26,000 New York students had vaccine exemptions due to religion last year.

This decisive action by New York only serves to underscore the importance of high vaccine rates and herd immunity. Note that these religious exemptions are very different from medical exemptions, which are needed for individuals with compromised immunity due to health issues. It’s that very population, along with the elderly and young infants who haven’t been able to receive their full immunization load yet that are protected when herd immunity is achieved. If thousands of people are skipping on vaccines for non-medical reasons, it does harm to so many who depend on most others being vaccinated in order to be protected themselves.

Sen. Brad Hoylman (D), who co-sponsored the bill, emphasized that very point in a statement last month. “Kids across New York State who are fighting cancer and other life-threatening diseases are now having to choose between going to school and exposing themselves to vaccine-preventable illnesses that could kill them.”

The bill’s other co-sponsor, Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz (D), echoed his sentiment. “It is absolutely imperative that everyone who is medically able to get vaccinated does so in order to protect those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons.”

It’s encouraging to see a state doing what’s in the interest of public health, and hopefully, other states will follow their example so we’re not going back to a time when easily prevented illnesses are allowed to once again run rampant.