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Polio declared a disaster emergency in New York after more poliovirus found

Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1.
Enlarge / Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a “state disaster emergency” Friday after poliovirus was detected in wastewater from a fourth county, indicating that the dangerous virus continues to spread, potentially in areas with abysmal vaccination rates.

Today’s emergency declaration aims to boost access to polio vaccines in the state, allowing more types of health care providers to authorize and administer polio vaccines. It also makes it a requirement for health care providers to report vaccination data to the state, allowing health officials to better identify vulnerable areas.

The emergency stretches back to July when officials reported paralytic polio in an unvaccinated adult in Rockland County whose symptoms began in June. As of September 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected poliovirus in 57 wastewater samples from four counties (Rockland, Orange, Sullivan, and newcomer Nassau) and New York City, with the earliest detection in April from Orange County.

Despite public awareness and vaccination campaigns, transmission appears to be going strong. Of those 57 positive samples, 27 were detected in August. And 50 of the 57 positive samples are directly genetically linked to the paralytic polio case in Rockland. Those 50 genetically linked samples include the newest county to detect poliovirus, Nassau, which had one positive wastewater sample last month.

Vaccination rates in the affected counties are troubling. Rockland County—which is notorious for generally low vaccination rates after battling a tenacious measles outbreak in 2019—has a polio vaccination rate of just 60 percent among children under the age of 2, who are recommended to have three polio vaccine doses. Orange and Sullivan counties have rates of 57 percent and 62 percent, respectively. Nassau has a better rate of 79 percent, which is the same as the statewide average.

But, those county-wide averages can mask pockets of even lower vaccination. New York state has zip code-level vaccination rate data for Rockland and Orange counties—and they’re worrying. In Orange, two zip codes have vaccination rates of 31 percent and 41 percent. Rockland has a zip code with a vaccination rate as low as 37 percent. The state health department says its goal is to get vaccination rates well over 90 percent.

“On polio, we simply cannot roll the dice,” New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said in a statement on Friday. “If you or your child are unvaccinated or not up to date with vaccinations, the risk of paralytic disease is real. I urge New Yorkers to not accept any risk at all.”

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