Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered an emergency expansion of the state’s polio vaccination efforts Friday after scientists detected the crippling and potentially deadly virus in Long Island wastewater.
The latest test results, announced on Friday, add Nassau County to the list of locales on alert for potential spread of the dangerous disease amid a resurgence enabled by low vaccination rates in children.
“On polio, we simply cannot roll the dice,” said the state’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, in a statement. “If you or your child are unvaccinated or not up to date with vaccinations, the risk of paralytic disease is real.”
She added: “Polio immunization is safe and effective – protecting nearly all people against disease who receive the recommended doses. Do not wait to vaccinate.”
The governor’s emergency order aims to bolster the state’s vaccination effort by making it easier for parents to get children vaccinated without needing to see a doctor. Now, pharmacists, paramedics and midwives will be able to dispense the vaccine, too.
Public health officials have also spotted the virus in the wastewater systems in New York City and in upstate communities, including Rockland, Orange and Sullivan counties.
Hochul’s order comes nearly two months after officials recorded the first — and so far only — case of paralytic polio in Rockland County in July, which was contracted by an unidentified person.
State scientists say that a genetic analysis of the virus sample from Nassau County reveals that it is linked to the initial case in Rockland.
About one-in-every 100 people infected with polio will develop a severe version of the disease that often includes permanent paralysis. The paralysis can be so severe that a person’s lungs are no longer able to function.
For decades, polio was among the most feared diseases in the country because it can cause paralysis — sometimes to the point where a person cannot breath without help.
The horrors of the disease were driven home by images of children lined up in hospital wards, struggling to breathe with the help of iron lungs.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was struck by the disease as an adult, forcing him to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Polio was effectively banished from the United States in the 1970s following decades of aggressive vaccination, which included officials ordering parents to get their children inoculated to attend school.
State lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 that aimed to close one major loophole to the vaccination drive by nixing the oft-claimed exemption for those who claimed to have an objection on religious grounds, following a measles outbreak in New York City.
However, vaccination rates — particularly in parts of New York City and New York State with large populations of ultra-Orthodox Jews that were hard hit by measles — continue to lag.
The New York State Department of Health currently aims to keep the state’s polio vaccination rate at 90 percent or higher. It currently sits at 79%.
The polio vaccination rate in Orange County is just 59%, while Rockland County is only 60%. In New York City, the lowest rate is in Williamsburg, where just 56% have gotten their shots.