New York City closed a preschool program at a yeshiva in Brooklyn on Monday for violating a Health Department order that required it to provide medical and attendance records amid a measles outbreak.
The preschool at United Talmudical Academy, which serves 250 students between the ages of 3 and 5 in the Williamsburg area, is the first program to be closed by the city, as it escalates efforts to stem the country’s largest measles outbreak in decades.
New York City has confirmed 329 measles cases since the outbreak began in the fall, and the cases have largely been confined within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. The outbreak began after unvaccinated individuals returned from celebrating Sukkot, a Jewish harvest festival, in Israel.
The closing of the preschool comes as tensions have risen in the ultra-Orthodox community over increased scrutiny and fears of anti-Semitic backlash. On the one hand, most in the ultra-Orthodox community are vaccinated, and the vast majority of prominent rabbis have urged people to vaccinate their children. However, the city’s response to the outbreak has caused vaccine skeptics to double down on their opposition to immunization. The anti-vaccination movement’s well-coordinated and sophisticated messaging campaign, highlighted by magazines, hotlines and conference calls, has convinced some parents that vaccines are dangerous, and that diseases, like measles, are not.
In December, the city issued exclusion orders, barring unvaccinated students from attending school in certain neighborhoods. The city issued violations to 23 yeshivas and day care centers for breaking that order. But, last month, the city said it would no longer issue violations; rather, it would immediately close yeshivas.
“The challenge has been with this particular school that they have been unable and/or unwilling to provide documentation as required when we visit,” Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner, said at a news conference on Monday. “So we have visited on a number of occasions and offered support, but in spite of all of that it’s been to no avail.”
The Health Department said the preschool would not be allowed to reopen until its staff had “submitted a corrective action plan approved by the department.”
At the news conference, health officials said two students associated with the school had contracted measles, though they did not know for sure whether the students had been infected with the virus at the school or elsewhere.
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency, requiring all individuals living in certain ZIP codes of Brooklyn to be vaccinated against measles or face a $1,000 fine. On Monday, a group of parents filed a lawsuit against the order, arguing it was unjustified because of “insufficient evidence of a measles outbreak or dangerous epidemic.”
“Our attempts at education and persuasion have failed to stop the spread of measles,” Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, said in a statement. “We had to take this additional action to fulfill our obligation to ensure that individuals do not continue to put the health of others at risk. We are confident that the city’s order is within the health commissioner’s authority to address the very serious danger presented by this measles outbreak.”
A judge declined to issue an emergency injunction against the city on Monday, and the parties will appear in court on Thursday.
There have been no deaths associated with this outbreak, but 25 individuals have been hospitalized. Two patients remain in the intensive care unit.
“This outbreak will continue to worsen, and the case count will grow if child care programs and schools do not follow our direction,” Dr. Barbot said in a statement. “It’s crucial in this outbreak that child care programs and schools maintain up-to-date and accurate immunization and attendance records. It’s the only way we can make sure schools are properly keeping unvaccinated students and staff out of child care centers to hasten the end of this outbreak.”
A teacher at United Talmudical Academy, who declined to give his name, said that all students who were not vaccinated were sent home weeks ago.
“It was a few kids who didn’t take the shots,” he said, as he exited the building. “They’re not coming back.”
A 68-year-old community member, who declined to give his name, said he did not think the school should be closed down.
“The parents should be held accountable,” he said.
He added that the community will be “very angry” that the school was shut down.
Measles outbreaks have also been reported in Rockland and Westchester Counties, suburbs of New York. Since January, 555 cases of measles have been reported in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday, noting the outbreak is on pace to be the largest since the country declared measles eradicated in 2000.
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.