With outbreaks of preventable diseases making headlines around New York State, the state government stepped in to repeal the non-medical vaccination exemption provision, which allowed parents to claim their religious or moral beliefs prevented their children from receiving vaccinations.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law on June 13, drawing starkly different reactions from invested parties: some rejoiced, calling it a victory for science, while anti-vaxxers, including several in the Ithaca area, took to social media to decry the decision as governmental overreach. Children can obviously still receive a medical exemption if, for whatever reason, their health would be endangered by a vaccination in the opinion of a medical professional.
The bill’s exact language is concise: it repeals Subdivision 9 of the Public Health Law, which formerly stated “this section shall not apply to children whose parent, parents, or guardian holds genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required, and no certificate shall be required as a prerequisite to such children being admitted or received into school or attending school,” clearing the path for vaccination exemptions for non-medical reasons.
But the law’s language only pertains to schools, and while the final impact on local schools is unclear yet, other entities with programming for children, like summer camps, must now either make their own policies or look for guidance from local governments. That situation is playing out locally, as local summer camps seem to be taking their cue from the Tompkins County Health Department, which has become the de facto leader on the topic here. The Ithaca Youth Bureau, Cornell University and Ithaca College, three of the largest summer camp operators in the county, have each elected to follow the Health Department’s lead for upcoming camps.
But the changes will not necessarily influence summer camps in Tompkins County at all, according to Department of Health spokesperson Samantha Hillson. She said camps that are registered with the department must still request immunization histories for each child in the camp, but those records will only be used in the case of an actual outbreak.
In the future, she said rules for summer camps "could come into closer realignment" with the new state laws, but that wouldn't be the case for at least this year.
Camp directors are allowed to refuse certain children entrance into the camps after reviewing their immunization records, Hillson said, but that would not be a Health Department mandate at this time.
“Camps directors/health directors have full discretion once they have reviewed immunization records and exemptions,” Hillson wrote in an email. “Camps need to have on file all immunization records, but they are not bound to the same requirements as schools and day cares.”
As for the other large camp program providers in the area, their answers were largely the same as Hillson’s: while nothing has changed yet, it does sound like there’s an appetite for tighter vaccination requirements in the future.
“For its summer programs, Ithaca College asks for immunization information,” Ithaca College spokesperson Dave Maley wrote in an email. “If a parent states that their child is exempt from being vaccinated for religious or medical reasons, the college has accepted that. That has not changed at this time. Going forward, the college will consider what policy changes will need to be made based on new laws/regulations as they go into effect.”
The Ithaca Youth Bureau referred questions to the Tompkins County Health Department.
Jennifer Davis is the camp director for Youth and Teen Programs at Cornell, and said students this year will be accepted in accordance with how the health department has decided to handle the situation and because Cornell’s camps attract a significant amount of international students. They would be left in quite a bind if they were turned away from camps this soon before they begin, and they may be from countries with different immunization schedules than the United States. There haven’t been any preventable disease outbreaks at Cornell camps in the past, Davis said.
Davis also said, though, that changes could come sooner rather than later. She said that while Cornell would consider how the health department’s policies address non-medical exemptions going forward, she imagines that Cornell’s camps will likely require a medical exemption for non-vaccinated children at some point and won’t accept non-medical exemptions.
“I do think it will be in place by next year,” Davis said. “If this continues to be a serious threat to our students, I absolutely think we will make a more definitive decision about allowing kids [without vaccinations] in camps.”