When Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Health Department issued an emergency health order in April aimed at stopping the spread of measles in four Brooklyn ZIP codes, it was an ultimatum for those who didn’t vaccinate: Get the shots or pay up.
More than two months later, however, 121 out of the 197 people who haven’t complied with the city’s order have done neither, according to the Health Department. In fact, none of the 121 have made an appearance before a judge to respond to their summonses, said the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), which oversees summons.
While the mayor and the Health Department said the fines were a last resort and the main goal is for the violators to get the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, a public health expert said the ongoing outbreak — which has risen to 596 cases and counting in the city — calls for stricter measures.
“Every one of those persons could expose others to (measles),” said Dr. Scott C. Ratzan, a senior scholar at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. “We do need laws that we can enforce, and we need to educate people on the content of the laws.”
According to the April 9 emergency order, if a person who lives in the 11205, 11206, 11211 or 11249 ZIP codes hasn’t gotten their vaccinations, they will be subject to a $1,000 fine, which rises if they continue to refuse their shots. A spokeswoman for OATH said those fines cannot be levied until the violator appears before a hearing officer at an OATH court, but each person has the right to one postponement. If someone skips a scheduled hearing, they will be fined $2,000.
That is what happened to one person at the end of May after they failed to show for their hearing, according to the spokeswoman. Another violator who was scheduled for a hearing that week requested a postponement to the end of June.
Two more violators also made postponement requests just before they were set to appear before an OATH hearing officer on June 5. All three of the postponed cases are scheduled for next week, according to the OATH spokeswoman.
Two health order violators are scheduled to appear at an OATH hearing Wednesday and five more are slated for Thursday, according to the OATH.
So far, 76 violators had their summons revoked after they got their shots, Health Department officials said. In those cases, they did not need to appear.
A spokesman for the Health Department said the slow hearing timetable was expected because there is a six-week gap between the time the summons is served and hearing date so that measles is not spread in court.
"The city’s goal is not for people to be fined but for them to get vaccinated. Of the 197 people who received summonses, many have chosen to follow the Order and have gotten vaccinated,” the spokesman said.
When asked about the situation during a news conference earlier this the month, Mayor de Blasio echoed this sentiment.
"We were putting the fine out there as a clear message that we meant business," he said.
Dr. Scott Ratzan acknowledged that the best way to solve the anti-vaccination issue is through education so that an increasing number of people accept the shots as a social norm. However, he warned that the city should be on top of enforcement.
Ratzan said not making those unvaccinated violators pay for their summonses or allowing them to remain without their shots for too long could set a bad precedent for future health emergencies.
"What if there was a SARS type epidemic or another type of epidemic where someone says ‘Well, I got away with it in 2019, I don’t need to comply (with health orders)?’” he asked. “You have to set the stage.”