New York Jewish Week via JTA — The first case of polio in the United States in a decade has been diagnosed in an Orthodox Jewish man from Rockland County, just north of New York.
Local health officials announced the case on Thursday and said they would begin a campaign to increase vaccination against the potentially deadly virus. They said the victim suffered from paralysis, a hallmark of the disease, and that he had not been vaccinated against it.
Multiple sources told New York Jewish Week that the man was part of the large Jewish community in Rockland County. A local elected official said the same in a now-deleted statement condemning those who don’t get vaccinated, prompting heavy criticism on Twitter from many in the local Jewish community.
“He was discharged from the hospital,” a source told Jewish Week on condition of anonymity. “He’s a young adult, in a wheelchair. He got married recently.
Poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease that can cause paralysis and even death. Before an effective vaccine was developed in the early 1950s, tens of thousands of Americans were infected each year; some were left with permanent disabilities and a handful were relegated to iron lungs, machines that helped them breathe mechanically after their own bodies were too weakened to do so on their own. A 1952 epidemic killed more than 3,000 people, mostly children.
The new polio case comes amid a backlash against vaccination in some Orthodox communities fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and following a measles outbreak in Rockland County in 2018 and 2019 that was centered on the Haredi Orthodox population of the region. The county banned unvaccinated children from entering public places during the outbreak.
According to state data, 60 percent of children in Rockland County have received all three doses of the polio vaccine by age 2, the recommended time frame for vaccination. Nationally, more than 92% of children are fully immunized by this age. Last year, the completion rate for Rockland County’s childhood immunization program, which protects against a range of diseases, was 42 percent, the lowest in the state. While the county has many residents who are not Orthodox Jews, its multiple Orthodox enclaves are the fastest growing areas, in part because of their large numbers of young children.
On Thursday, Rockland County Executive Ed Day said the county was not “immune to vaccine hesitancy.”
“That’s exactly what led to the measles crisis that we faced and why we’re constantly doing what we can to be proactive in vaccinating people,” Day said.
Rockland County will offer free polio vaccinations in Pomona to all unvaccinated New Yorkers starting Friday.
State Sen. James Skoufis, a Democrat whose district includes part of Rockland County, posted a statement on Twitter in a now-deleted tweet asking to “bring down the full force of the law on those who circumvented these requirements. “.
He named Ramapo Yeshivas as having “a history of non-compliance with state vaccine laws.” Ramapo is one of five towns in Rockland County in which the source said there are more than 120 yeshivas.
“Additional enforcement is required in light of today’s news,” Skoufis said in the statement.
Skoufis’ statement drew criticism from within the Jewish community. Yossi Gestetner, a Rockland County resident whose Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council worked to address negative publicity stemming from the 2019 measles outbreak, tweeted that Skoufis’ statement was “hateful and inflammatory.”
“I missed your tweet calling out LGBTQ+ by name and as a community for Monkeypox,” Gestetner wrote, referring to the ongoing outbreak of another virus. “Then why visibly treat the Jews this way? Every elected Dem should condemn you.
Gestetner told New York Jewish Week that he recognizes there is vaccine hesitancy within the Orthodox community, but dismissed the idea that vaccine hesitancy “is just a problem of the Orthodox community”.
“People have real concerns about vaccines,” he said. “Even if they are wrong, the government should go out there and show them the benefits of these vaccines rather than just yelling at people.”
Gestetner said he was concerned that drawing attention to the Orthodox community would fuel anti-Semitism in the region, adding that comments like Skoufis’s did not help.
After the backlash for his statement, Skoufis said on Twitter that he met with members of the Rockland County Jewish community to discuss the situation. “I really appreciate the sensitivity on the ground and the need to make sure the language used like this in my statement today better reflects that sensitivity,” Skoufis said on Twitter.
After the 2019 measles outbreak, public health campaigns immunized more children against the virus, including in the hardest-hit Jewish communities in Rockland County and Brooklyn. But since then, the advent of COVID-19 vaccines has heightened tensions around vaccination in these communities and beyond, with inaccurate information circulating widely. Zev Zelenko, an Orthodox doctor who became a hero in some circles for promoting untested treatments and opposing vaccinations, was based just outside Rockland County.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed childhood immunizations in the United States as families have delayed or deprioritized routine health care.
“Children’s vaccine hesitancy is huge, and I think a lot of it has gotten worse with the whole misinformation pandemic,” said Blimi Marcus, an Orthodox nurse who led a vaccination campaign against the virus. COVID-19 in his community, at New York Jewish Week in December.
The Rockland County Polio Vaccination Site will be open Friday morning and Monday for an extended period at the Pomona Health Complex at 50 Sanitarium Road. Authorities are urging anyone who has not been vaccinated, including women who are pregnant or fear they may have been exposed, to be vaccinated or reinforced during clinics.