With the new school year looming, parents whose right to have their children exempted from vaccination requirements was yanked by a state law passed in June are feeling pressure, both from mandated deadlines to get their kids enrolled and from their neighbors in the community. Much of the August 21 New Paltz School Board meeting was devoted to hearing and responding to those concerns. Board members voted to write letters in support of revisiting the timeline to administer all of the vaccines required, but board president Kathy Preston noted that they must follow the law as written. They listened also to people who feel they are being marginalized in a community regarded as being welcoming to a diversity of different walks of life.
A law eliminating religious exemptions was signed June 14, in response to a measles outbreak in Rockland County. More recently, medical exemptions have been tightened, with doctors now having to provide specific documentation regarding each vaccine for which an exemption is sought. Superintendent Maria Rice, who wrote a letter to the state judge deciding in a lawsuit intended to stop the law’s implementation before the school year begins, agrees that not a lot of time was given to implement the new rules. District policy was changed to reflect the law, but as she put in her August 15 letter to Justice Denise Hartman, lawmakers’ “lack of consultation with educators and limited time for comment resulted in a timeframe that did not take into consideration a smooth transition, allowing parents to weigh their options and districts time to prepare for the results of their decisions.” In other states, she added, parents were given “years to come into compliance.”
Some parents had questions about the specific rules, because different health professionals have given them different answers when they’ve asked about how quickly vaccines must be administered to comply with the requirements. The implementation scheduled “is just unworkable” according to Kimiko Link, and is resulting in “a different kind of public health crisis.” When philosophical exemptions were rolled back in California, she said, the schedule was “magnitudes different:” years, instead of weeks. Per Megan Shapiro, another parent, the first doses of all vaccines must be given by September 18, with proof all remaining appointments scheduled to be filed by October 4.
Selma Cappolina spoke about the confusion in force since the law was passed. Her child, a rising junior, needs four more inoculations but must wait 28 days between some doses. “We’ve done all we could,” she said. Rice interjected that Connie Hayes, who is the director of pupil personnel services, has worked to become fully familiar with the law and its interpretations; she can be reached by phone at 256-4040. Parents present had information different from what the superintendent believed to be true, highlighting the constraints in conveying accurate information about what to expect.
Shapiro said that her decision not to have her child vaccinated was informed by history. She asserted that the creator of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, later proved that its live version was sometimes harmful while a vaccine made from dead organisms was not, but it “took 30 years to listen to him.” She is skeptical that the interest in a fully-vaccinated population is based on science rather than politics or money. Absent that confidence, she does not believe in using children as a “testing ground.” Shapiro used that term because of what she sees as a catch-22: children must have a preexisting condition to receive a medical exemption, but evidence of that condition might only be revealed by administering the vaccine itself. “The only way to know is to give it to them.” She forecast that “in 50 years we will look back on this” as worse than allowing tobacco, and that full vaccination “does not solve a public health problem.”
Medical doctor Anna Steinhardt said that there is still “absolutely zero science” showing that healthy people who have not been vaccinated pose a risk to others. She noted that many adults have lost immunity once conferred, and that up to ten percent of vaccine recipients never become immune in the first place. Part of her evidence is a statement released by Physicians for Informed Consent about a similar rollback in California, in which those doctors stated that “about half of all California schoolchildren, who are fully vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, can still be infected with and spread measles, irrespective of the medical exemption rate.”
Voice breaking, Megan Rose recounted the feeling she’d had to hold off starting vaccinations on her second child. “I just felt intuitively that this is not right.” She allowed her doctor to overrule those worries, and her child was later diagnosed with leukemia. While she doesn’t think one caused the other, “You don’t give a vaccine to a child with leukemia,” a child who died at 13 months of age. Her concerns about the protocols stem from that experience.
Bearing reams of paper documentation to back up her comments, Link explained that vaccines meet a lower safety standard than prescription drugs, and that “there is risk.” That risk isn’t to the manufacturers, however, because those companies have immunity from lawsuits stemming from vaccine injuries, which are instead referred to the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, through which an estimated $4 billion has been awarded since 1986. That’s frequent enough to give some parents pause, while many others consider the odds to be in their favor.
Many of the parents who spoke touched on other consequences of the legislation, such as a sense of marginalization within the community. Shapiro said that she and her peers have researched these issues with care, yet are “portrayed as wacky hippies who live in the woods” by others. Acknowledging that the issue has been “polarizing” in the community “like many others,” Kimiko Link encouraged taking a “broader look” at the issues than what’s been presented in media coverage, where complex issues are frequently summarized.
While Steinhardt is opting to home-school her own children, she’s concerned about the wedge this issue is driving into the community. She referenced editorials recommending that those who have not been vaccinated be included in a public database “like sex offenders.” Later she provided this reporter with a picture of a sign hanging at Elting Memorial Library warning patrons with compromised immune systems that “members of the New Paltz community who have not been vaccinated frequent this library.” About the sign she observed, “The irony of a posting like this is that there is often a similar posting outside the doors of those undergoing chemo or have a bone marrow transplant in the hospital (basically those who are severely immunocompromised). However, that posting warns to please not enter if you have been recently vaccinated with a live virus vaccine such as MMR or varicella as the vaccine can shed to others for several weeks.”
“We do not like to be on the fringe,” said Megan Rose in her comments, to be “seen as outcast” over this issue. Members of the community “all need to come together, whether we believe it or not.”
Link spoke of how the law change has pitted parents against each other, particularly when a family spans two households. “It’s just not necessary,” she said. “We’re afraid to even come out” as skeptical about vaccines because “overriding public sentiment” is that they are safe. A longtime employee of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, she has observed “varying levels of trust” in government during her career, because decisions are invariably made not just using science but political considerations.
As to the power wielded by this board, the parents sharing their stories disagree with the trustees themselves on that. Many of them asked for more time, but this board is also seen as influential because of the reputation the district enjoys. One woman explained after the meeting that a request to reconsider the rules entirely might get noticed if it came from this board, perhaps with others joining in. Board of Regents members also have a say in how the law is rolled out, and that’s seen as an avenue for this board.
Board members themselves appeared sympathetic, and agreed to sending their own request to stretch out the implementation schedule to back up Rice’s letter. Vice president Michael O’Donnell urged that any such request “be very specific” regarding how much time is being sought and precisely why.
O’Donnell also reminded his colleagues about a perspective not represented at this meeting: people who are concerned about what might happen if there was no such law.
Preston did say, “The powers of the board are limited in this,” but invited further comment via email.