Mayor declares public health emergency following measles outbreak in Brooklyn’s orthodox communities

Measles virus infects 21 victims after leaders of Williamsburg yeshiva allow sick kid in class
Photo by Colin Mixson

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency at Brooklyn Public Library’s Williamsburg Branch Tuesday morning in response to the growing spread of the measles virus in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities, where nearly 300 people have fallen ill with the potentially fatal disease since October.

“We cannot allow this dangerous disease to make a comeback in New York City,” said de Blasio. “We have to stop
it now.”

The mayor’s emergency declaration mandates that residents of four Williamsburg zip codes — 11205, 11206, 11211, and 11249 — must seek vaccination, or face Department of Health violations and fines totaling as much as $1,000 per
unvaccinated person.

The emergency declaration follows a previously announced Department of Health exclusion order barring unvaccinated children from attending schools and day cares within both Williamsburg and Borough Park, and demonstrates a shift in the city’s focus to combating the disease in the northern Brooklyn neighborhood, where the majority of new measles cases have been discovered,
according to de Blasio.

“It is now much more a Williamsburg problem than a Borough Park problem,” said the mayor.

De Blasio also touted the city’s authority to temporarily close schools found in violation of the Health Department’s exclusion order as an option of last resort in combating the spread of measles.

“That is not a tool we want to use, but it is one we will use if we have no choice,” de Blasio said.

And throughout the press conference, city officials reiterated the safety and effectiveness of the measles vaccine, with the city’s chief physician describing an annual national death toll that reached into the hundreds before the measles vaccine was invented.

“Getting vaccinated is far safer than getting the measles,” said Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot. “The vaccine has been proven safe and effective in preventing the spread
of measles.”

This is the first time the city has issued a public health emergency mandating vaccines, according to Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio, who attributed the need for the extraordinary measure to the combination of both a large scale anti-vaccination movement and the outbreak of the potentially fatal illness.

“The combination of a large anti-vax movement… with a large outbreak has not happened in the way that its
happening right now,” said Palacio.

Officials traced the borough’s measles outbreak to a Brooklyn resident traveling from Israel — where a similar spread of the disease infected more than 1,000 people last year — in October, and the infection has since afflicted 285 people within the borough’s Orthodox Jewish Community, the vast majority of whom are under 18 years old, according to Health
Department statistics.

So far, 21 people to be hospitalized with the measles, including five people who required intensive care, according to Barbot, who noted there have been no fatalities.

Since the Health Department issued its mandatory exclusion order in December, numerous schools violating the city’s emergency mandate played host to mini outbreaks of the extremely virulent disease, including one Williamsburg yeshiva that inspectors have connected to more than 40 cases since January.

This is the largest outbreak of the measles that New York City has experienced since 1991, according to Barbot, and its spread represents a major spike over the two infections that plagued New Yorkers in 2017.

The highly contagious airborne pathogen produces symptoms including fever, cough, and a runny nose, and can cause diarrhea, ear infection, pneumonia, encephalitis, and death — with about 1 of every 1,367 kids infected dying due to fatal complications from measles.

Symptoms can appear anytime from seven to 21 days following exposure, according to the Health Department.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.