April 9, 2019

The following is a statement by Faculty Director, Lawrence Gostin, on the New York City public health emergency declaration and order for mandatory measles vaccinations targeting certain zip codes. 

April 9, 2019 | Mayor De Blasio’s emergency declaration to require measles vaccinations is fully justified to bring the measles outbreaks under control. The city has the power and duty to safeguard the health of its population, particularly to protect vulnerable children from dangerous infectious diseases. Vaccines are highly effective and safe and could quickly end the current measles outbreaks in New York City.  Vaccinations pose negligible risks to the community.

Mandatory vaccinations are highly unusual in modern America. For the last century, all states require vaccines as a condition of school entry but do not directly require vaccinations. Yet, the Supreme Court has upheld mandatory vaccinations enforced by civil fines. Mandatory vaccination, moreover, is not overly restrictive of liberty. The courts struck down Rockland County’s emergency order because it was overly restrictive of individual liberty. It was probably also unconstitutional. The NYC order is far more narrow and well within traditional public health requirements to require vaccinations. I also do not see any significant restriction of religious liberty because all religious communities and traditions must respect public health laws.

There is one serious concern about this emergency order. It was unwise of the Mayor to single out specific zip codes. This could be viewed as discriminatory, and opens the city up to the criticism that it is targeting specific religious groups. It could also create a backlash against vaccines by religious communities who could believe they are being victimized.

The Mayor should have made the emergency order applicable to all city residents without singling out specific geographic areas or religious communities. A vaccination requirement should apply equally to all individuals regardless of where they live or what religion they practice. Why create a special order that singles out certain religious communities, when it would be fairer and more effective to require it of all residents? The city has opened itself up to legal challenge based on discrimination when it was entirely unnecessary to frame the order as targeted specially to particular communities.