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Vaccine fight continues on Long Island

Anti-vaxxers are trying to stop a bill that would end the ability of parents to claim a religious exemption to stop their children from getting shots.

A dose of the measles, mumps and rubella

A dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is displayed at the Neighborcare Health clinics at Vashon Island High School in Vashon Island, Wash. on May 15, 2019. Photo Credit: AP/Elaine Thompson

Long Island is becoming key in the fight over changing state vaccination law prompted by the current measles epidemic.

Anti-vaxxers are trying to stop a bill that would end the ability of parents to claim a religious exemption to stop their children from getting shots.

Some local legislators are paying attention.

Bayport advocate Rita Palma -- who more than a decade ago formed a group called My Kids, My Choice -- told The Point that she and other advocates, including many Long Islanders, will be in Albany Wednesday and Thursday to hold a news conference and to meet with lawmakers in a push to keep the religious exemption in place. Palma also works with the New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights and the Children’s Health Defense, two groups that argue for the right not to vaccinate.

Palma told The Point that many of her fellow advocates are from Long Island, comparing the effort to the state testing opt-out movement.

“Long Island is where this is all happening,” said Palma. “We are a strong group down here and we’re leading the way in the state.”

Palma has been updating a list of lawmakers she has asked her supporters to contact regularly, especially as the State Senate and State Assembly seem to be getting closer to voting on the bill. As of May 20, several Long Island Assembly members were on that list, including Steve Englebright, Judy Griffin and Kimberly Jean-Pierre.

Griffin told The Point she met with a group of religious-exemption supporters a few weeks ago, and they made a convincing argument. While she already had concerns about vaccination, the group convinced her to vote against the bill. And meanwhile, she said she hasn’t heard from a single constituent who supports getting rid of the religious exemption.

“I believe we should uphold the religious exemption,” Griffin said. “I believe that if people have a religious exemption, whether it’s due to a religious belief or a philosophical belief, we should uphold that.”

Griffin argued that “the legislation doesn’t solve the problem,” because some of the unvaccinated population doesn’t have a religious or medical exemption.

And while Griffin and her now-grown children are vaccinated, she said the fears over vaccination are worth taking into account.

“For that family who has a perfectly healthy baby and later contracts something, whether autism or something else, I don’t know if they’re right or wrong but I do believe there could be something to it,” Griffin said.

Englebright said he, too, met with anti-vax supporters. But he has come to a different conclusion.

“I’m a scientist. I believe in science and that’s what we’re talking about,” Englebright said.

Will he support the measure to end religious exemptions?

“I don’t do that without trepidation, but yes,” Englebright said. “I’m very sensitive to religious freedom and as long as there is not an objective threat to human health… I would tend to favor the religious freedom principle. The difference here in my mind is that when an epidemic starts to emerge, the reality is that principle can hurt people…. That’s where I draw the line as a scientist and as an elected official.”

Jean-Pierre, meanwhile, expressed no doubts on her position on the bill.

“I am very pro-vaccine,” she told The Point, noting that her 3-year-old has gotten all of her shots. “I am for getting rid of the religious exemption. I believe we shouldn’t put our kids in danger … And there’s a reason why God created doctors and scientists and researchers.”

The bill’s Assembly sponsor, Jeffrey Dinowitz, told The Point he has requested that the measure come up for a vote in the Health Committee next week -- and is “hopeful” there will be enough votes for it to pass. But it’s still uncertain whether the legislation will make it past committee, never mind whether the full Assembly will pass it.

Palma, however, said she’s hearing from lawmakers who hope the bill doesn’t come up for a vote at all -- so they wouldn’t have to pick a side.

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