On Tuesday, April 30th, at around 10 p.m., armed officers with the Kings County sheriff’s department showed up at the door of a Williamsburg apartment to serve an Orthodox Jewish woman with a summons for failing to vaccinate one of her nine children.
The woman, identified as Jane Doe at an administrative trial Wednesday morning, is the first person to appear before a judge since the city declared a public health emergency 11 weeks ago. The declaration required everyone over the age of six months who lived, worked, or attended school in four Brooklyn zip codes, including the one where Doe lives, to be vaccinated against measles or show that they are already immune.
But even though much of the blame for the city’s measles outbreak has fallen on people who refuse to vaccinate their children, Doe is pro-vaccine. She testified at the hearing that all of her other eight children are vaccinated for measles. The summons she received that night was for her youngest, her eight-month-old son, who’d been sick for several weeks with fevers and ear infections.
“I’m a very responsible mother...I was very hurt about this whole thing,” she told Gothamist/WNYC. “I feel they’re coming very strong on me because of the public and because of the anti-vaxxers.”
Doe submitted medical records to Administrative Law Judge Didi Skaff showing she’d taken her son repeatedly to the doctor’s office in late March and April. Her pediatrician had recommended postponing the shot until he recovered, Doe testified. The baby was finally given his first dose of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine last week, she said.
“I do think I got the summons very unfairly,” she said at the hearing. “All my children are vaccinated.”
In order to attend day care or nursery school, babies are required to get their first dose of the measles vaccine when they turn one year old, according to New York State’s immunization requirements. But the city’s emergency order in April applied to everyone above the age of six months. The change in the minimum age has also confused some day care facilities that said they were not directly notified about it.
Doe said until the sheriffs showed up at her door, she was not aware that children in her Williamsburg neighborhood younger than 12 months old were supposed to be vaccinated.
“We watch no TV. Most of [us] have no internet connection,” she said, speaking of her religious Orthodox Jewish community in North Brooklyn.
“None of my friends knew, none of my sisters knew,” she said. Nor did her doctor mention it when she took her baby there on April 20, 11 days after the emergency order went into effect, she said.
For days after she was issued the summons, her children were still asking why people had shown up at her apartment with guns.
“It’s ridiculous that you have sheriffs knocking at your door in the middle of the night,” she told the hearing officer. “The children were all really terrified.”
She eventually quelled their fears by telling them the men had come to sell furniture, she said: “That’s how I got them not to be afraid.”
The city’s health department referred questions about how the summons was served to the Kings County sheriff. The sheriff's office’s couldn't be reached for comment right away. The health department also has not returned a request for comment on other matters.
Judge Skaffe adjourned the case and said she would rule later. The mother could face a fine of $1,000 if the judge rules in favor of the city.
Doe was one of 209 individuals who had received summonses under the city’s mandatory vaccination order. Ninety of those cases were withdrawn after the defendants complied with the city’s order and vaccinated their children. Around two dozen others have postponed their hearing dates with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, which they are allowed to do once, according to the office.
A second case that came before the hearing officer Wednesday was withdrawn by health department attorneys when the parents showed proof their child had immunity to measles dating back to March, a month before the city’s emergency order when into effect.
Four other people who were supposed to appear before administrative judges Wednesday morning to defend themselves for measles orders. Three failed to show up and will automatically be fined $2,000, twice the original amount, according to OATH. The last rescheduled their hearing to a later date.
Since last October, 609 New York City residents have caught measles, most of them in Williamsburg. Seventy-two percent of them were unvaccinated. Fifty people have been hospitalized over the course of the outbreak. Half of all those sickened were children old enough to have the vaccine but who had not received it, according to the city’s health department.