Just The Vaxx, Please


Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to the measles outbreak in chasidic Brooklyn got a vote of confidence — or a shot in the arm, in this case — from a prominent Satmar leader in Williamsburg.

The mayor’s declaration of a public health emergency on Tuesday, which requires people in four mostly chasidic zip codes in Williamsburg to be vaccinated, has the enthusiastic support of Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO), who told The Jewish Week, “People should, from a religious point of view, take the shot.”

Under the declaration, health officials will check the vaccination records of all people who may have been in contact with infected people. Anyone not vaccinated may be fined $1,000 and will be required to get the vaccine right away.

There have been 285 measles cases confirmed since October; 228 of them in Williamsburg. There have been 49 in Borough Park, three in Midwood/Marine Park, two in Flushing and one each in Crown Heights, Brighton Beach, and Bensonhurst. Perhaps even more important to the health commissioner’s office is that while the epidemic has stopped spreading in six of the seven neighborhoods, with no additional cases reported in at least the last week, in Williamsburg there have been 26 new cases reported in the same time period, according to the city’s health department.

“Williamsburg is seeing the majority of new cases,” Department of Health spokesman Michael Lanza said in an email. 

The declaration comes after the NYC Health Department announced last week that all yeshivas and chasidic day care programs that don’t exclude unvaccinated students will be issued a violation and could be shut down.

“I believe it’s never going to get to the point that people are going to be fined, never going to get to the point that schools will be closed,” Rabbi Niederman said.

Rabbi Niederman and other community leaders have long worked with the health department to increase vaccination rates in their community. And according to state records, in 2014 most Williamsburg yeshivas had measles vaccination rates of 97 percent or above. In eight schools, 100 percent of students were vaccinated. The 3,000-plus student boys’ school United Talmudic Academy, was one of those, and Beth Rachel, a 4,000-student girls’ school, had a 97.1 percent vaccination rate.

There are plenty of other communities that have relatively low vaccination rates, meaning the disease could spread there with a sneeze on a subway pole. A sampling of area progressive schools found that 13 progressive-leaning schools had vaccination rates below 95 percent. The lowest rate was at Brooklyn Free School at 61.8 percent.

Marc Stern, general counsel at AJC and an expert on church-state law, said that while the city’s health code — and more than 100 years of case law — has settled the question of the legality of mandatory vaccinations, the fact that the order applies only to four zip codes is problematic.

When city health officials began to fight the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the city tested everyone, even though most affected were gay men. “We do that because you don’t want to stigmatize groups,” Stern said.

“It could be the city’s rationale [that] this [Williamsburg] is where the measles are, this is where we can most effectively stop it,” he said. “But there’s something problematic about singling out people by zip code when there are anti-vaxxers in other places.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally stated that the United Talmudic Academy (UTA) and Beth Rachel were run by United Jewish Organizations (UJO). They are, in fact, run by UTA.