The first case of polio in the United States in nearly a decade was an orthodox Jewish man

New York Jewish Week via JTA – The first US case of polio in a decade was diagnosed in an Orthodox Jewish man in Rockland County, north of New York City.

Local health officials announced the case Thursday and said they would launch a campaign to increase vaccination against the potentially deadly virus. They said that the victim was paralyzed, a hallmark of the disease, and that he had not been vaccinated against it.

Multiple sources told New York Jewish Week that the man is part of the large Jewish community in Rockland County. A local elected official said the same in a now-deleted statement condemning those who do not receive the vaccination, which drew heavy criticism on Twitter from many in the local Jewish community.

“He has been discharged from the hospital,” one of the sources told “Jewish Week” on condition of anonymity. “He is a young adult in a wheelchair. He recently got married.”

Polio 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 annually. Some ended up with permanent disabilities and a handful of them were taken to iron lungs, machines that would help them breathe mechanically after their bodies were too weak to do so alone. An outbreak of the disease in 1952 killed more than 3,000 people, most of them children.

The new polio case comes amid a backlash against vaccination in some Orthodox communities fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and after an outbreak of measles in Rockland County in 2018 and 2019 that was centered in the area’s ultra-Orthodox population. The county has banned unvaccinated children from entering public places during the outbreak.

Signs about measles and the measles vaccine are displayed at the Rockland County Department of Health in Pomona, New York, March 27, 2019 (Seth Wenig/AP)

According to state data, 60% of Rockland County children received all three doses of the polio vaccine by age 2, the recommended immunization schedule. Nationwide, more than 92% of children are fully vaccinated by this age. Last year, Rockland County’s completion rate for its childhood immunization schedule, which protects against a range of diseases, was 42%, the lowest in the state. While the county has a large non-Orthodox population, the multiple Orthodox enclaves are the fastest growing regions, in part due to the large number of young children.

On Thursday, Rockland County Executive Ed Day said the county is not “immune to vaccine frequency.”

“It is exactly what led to the measles crisis that we dealt with, and why we are constantly doing what we can to be proactive about vaccinating people,” Day said.

Rockland County will offer free polio vaccines in Pomona to any unvaccinated New Yorkers starting Friday.

State Senator James Scovis, a Democrat whose district includes part of Rockland County, issued a statement on Twitter in a now-deleted tweet asking to “drop the full force of the law on those who have avoided these requirements.”

He noted that Ramapo Yeshivas has a “history of non-compliance with the country’s vaccination laws”. Ramapo is one of five cities in Rockland County, where the source said there are more than 120 yeshiva schools.

“Additional enforcement is required in light of today’s news,” Scovis said in his statement.

Scovis’ statement drew criticism from within the Jewish community. Yossi Geistetner, a Rockland County resident with the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council who worked to combat negative publicity from the 2019 measles outbreak, tweeted that Scovis’ statement was “abhorrent and inflammatory.”

This is a scene in the polio emergency ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 16, 1955. The city’s polio epidemic has reached 480 cases. Critical patients are lined up together on iron pulmonary ventilators so that a team of doctors and nurses can provide rapid emergency treatment as needed. (AP Photo)

“I missed your tweet calling out LGBTQ+ by name and as a community for smallpox,” Geistetner wrote, referring to a different virus outbreak now underway. “Why do we so ostensibly treat Jews? Every elected Democrat should condemn you.”

Gestetner told Jewish Week in New York that he recognized that there was hesitation about vaccinations within the Orthodox community, but rejected the idea that hesitation in a vaccine “is just an Orthodox issue.”

“People have real concerns about vaccines,” he said. “Even if they are wrong, the government should show them the benefit of these vaccines instead of just yelling at people.”

Geestettner said he was concerned that drawing attention to the Orthodox community could fuel anti-Semitism in the region, adding that comments like those made by Scovis don’t help.

After the backlash over his statement, Scovis said on Twitter that he met with members of the Jewish community in Rockland County to discuss the situation. “I really appreciate the sensitivity on the ground and the need to make sure the language used in this way in my statement from today better reflects that sensitivity,” Scovis said on Twitter.

After a measles outbreak in 2019, public health campaigns resulted in more children being vaccinated against the virus, including within Rockland County and the hardest-hit Brooklyn Jewish communities. But since then, the advent of COVID-19 vaccines has heightened tensions around vaccination in those communities and beyond, with inaccurate information widely circulating. Zev Zelenko, an orthodox physician who became a hero in some circles for promoting untested treatments and opposing vaccination, was based outside of Rockland County.

This 2014 illustration made available by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicts a poliovirus molecule. (Sarah Bowser, Meredith Potter Neulov/Center for Disease Control via AP)

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed childhood vaccinations across the United States, as families have delayed routine health care or lowered its priorities.

Blamey Marcus, the Orthodox nurse who led the COVID-19 vaccine campaign in her community, told New York Jewish Week in December.

The Rockland County polio vaccination site will be open Friday morning and Monday for longer at Pomona Health Complex at 50 Sanitarium Street. Officials are urging anyone who is not immunized, including women who are pregnant, or who are concerned they could be vaccinated or boosted during clinics.

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