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NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio Declares Public Health Emergency To Combat Measles Outbreak


Today, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency to fight an outbreak of measles in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The city has been addressing the outbreak for months with education and outreach. Now this emergency declaration means all unvaccinated people in four zip codes where the measles cases are concentrated are required to receive inoculations. Gwynne Hogan of member station WNYC is covering this story and joins us now. Hi, Gwynne.


SHAPIRO: How is this new order going to be enforced?

HOGAN: So within four zip codes of Brooklyn where we've seen almost all of the new measles cases in recent weeks, the city is requiring that all people who aren't vaccinated get the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine right away. If they don't, they could face fines of up to $1,000. But exactly how much enforcement they're going to do is still a little unclear. At the press conference today, Mayor de Blasio said their goal isn't to penalize people. It's to encourage vaccination.


BILL DE BLASIO: The goal here is to send the message that people need to act immediately to get vaccinated and that vaccination is available readily here in the neighborhood and throughout the city.

HOGAN: And health officials also said that as they investigate cases of measles, unvaccinated people who've been exposed will be asked to get the MMR. And if they don't comply, then they could face fines.

SHAPIRO: This outbreak started last October, so what has changed recently to make this what de Blasio calls a public health emergency?

HOGAN: Well, right. You're right. So this dates back all the way to October. But we have seen a huge spike in the last six weeks or so. The number of measles cases has more than doubled since late February - up to 285. Also the number of hospitalizations has gone way up to 21, with five people in intensive care. And health officials also said today they had gotten reports of measles parties where kids were intentionally being exposed to the virus. And so with - this outbreak has mostly been concentrated within Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. So the Health Department is thinking this spike is also related to the religious holidays, like Purim. And with Passover coming up, more people will be congregating, so more opportunities for this virus to spread.

SHAPIRO: And so how are these communities reacting to the city's announcement that people will now be required to get vaccinated?

HOGAN: Well, outside the press conference today, there was a group of mothers who said they would still refuse to vaccinate their kids regardless of any fines. But these - the mothers that were there said their kids had already gotten the measles and had since recovered. They wouldn't give their full names, but there was another woman who walked by who I talked to - 22-year-old Blimie Klein. She said the people who oppose vaccination in their community are a small fraction.

BLIMIE KLEIN: They're a 1 percent. They're really a 1 percent - 99.9 percent in Williamsburg from Orthodox community is immunized. People are taking it very serious. It's because the mayor is saying it and because this is what our doctors are saying. And we know that we have to follow rules from our doctors.

HOGAN: And I reached out to some other religious leaders in the community, and they also said they supported the city's mandatory vaccination order. But interestingly enough, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, says he's not so sure about mandating vaccines and wondered if the government had the right to do so.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What kind of legal precedent is there? Does the government have the right to mandate this?

HOGAN: Well, you know, we've seen in Rockland County has been struggling with the same issue in recent weeks, and they tried to ban unvaccinated kids from public places, but that was legally challenged, and a judge struck that down. But there is a Supreme Court case that public health experts have cited repeatedly, a 1905 Supreme Court case. And in that instance, the court ruled that Massachusetts had a right to uphold its mandatory vaccination order during a smallpox outbreak, much as what New York City is doing here.

SHAPIRO: That's Gwynne Hogan, who covers health for member station WNYC. Thanks a lot, Gwynne.

HOGAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gwynne Hogan