HUDSON–The Columbia County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing last week on proposed Local Law #3-2020, which would establish new immunization requirements for camps in Columbia County. It was presented as an extension of the new New York State school immunization requirements that took effect December 31 2019, which does away with religious and personal exemptions as well as some medical exemptions previously available.
But before the hearing heard input from the public Wednesday, February 12, the chairman of the board’s Health and Human Services Committee announced that the board was tabling the proposal and there would be no new county vaccination requirements for campers this year.
The proposal had been drafted because the Board of Supervisors found that “camps in its jurisdiction are vulnerable to comparable threats to the health and well-being of persons and property as those relating to public, private or parochial schools in New York State,” and spelled out the new requirements for immunization of campers and camp staff in Columbia County. The proposal would have mandated that both campers and employees should have the same regimen of vaccinations required by public and private schools.
Notice of the public hearing was published January 22, and the law was supposed to take effect soon after the supervisors approved it.
The board meeting room at 401 State Street was filled with people interested in or ready to comment on the proposed law and it appeared that a majority of the visitors attending had come to demonstrate their opposition to the proposed law.
Supervisor Robert Lagonia (Austerlitz), the new chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, took the podium first, saying, “I think we, personally, have done a poor job of getting this information out to the public so I want to apologize for that.”
He said the state Department of Health recommends that such vaccinations be required for camps. He listed other counties in the state enacting such laws, including Sullivan and Orange. Ulster requires at least an MMR vaccination (measles, mumps and rubella). Massachusetts and the American Camp Association also recommend vaccinations for campers and staff. “They’re not saying we must,” Mr. Lagonia said, “but they are strongly recommending that we do.”
He offered those who had come to the hearing a chance to speak and about 10 people did address the proposal even after Mr. Lagonia assured that the law would not be reconsidered this year.
“Our intent was to protect the masses. It was not to affect your financial situations,” Mr. Lagonia said.
“I will tell you,” he added, “that this will go back to committee and we are going to work through this. We are going to take all of your thoughts all of your ideas, all of your emails, all your phone calls into consideration.”
Among those who did speak was county Department of Health Environmental Health Director Ed Coons, who said that the code requires a record of vaccinations for campers and that vaccinations were recommended but not required. He also noted that the medical and religious exemptions in the code were things that the department wanted to change.
In 2016 and 2018 there were two major communicable disease outbreaks in camps, Mr. Coons said and the medical records of 1,000 people were reviewed to make sure that the population that had not been vaccinated would be protected from possible exposure to hepatitis A.
The second incident involved vericella, or chicken pox. Those incidents led Mr. Coons to emphasize the requirement that camp staff also be vaccinated.
Several of the community members who had signed up to comment declined. Some of those who did speak expressed dismay with vaccination laws in general and anger with the new state law removing religious exemptions, seeing it as an overreach by government. Three camp directors also spoke.
Adam Weinstein, executive director of the Berkshire Hills Eisenberg Camp on Miller Pond in Copake, thanked and praised Mr. Coons and his team, saying, “They are the first people we call when we have trouble.”
His camp had the two vericella cases mentioned and he said, “I would argue that the two cases actually show that the regulatory framework that we have right now works.”
Mr. Weinstein’s camp has immunization information for campers and staff and the health department was able to vaccinate those who were at risk so the camp could move on with its summer program.
Addressing the tabling of the proposal, Mr. Weinstein said, “I’m glad you put it off for this year and I hope you continue to put it off.” He cited the difficulty of producing the documentation required by the proposal and the costs of the blood tests. Berkshire Hills has staff from 30 countries and some would have difficulty getting a doctor’s note.
He said the camping business is competitive and it would be difficult to find staff and campers if Columbia County law differs from the rest of New York State.
Michael Rose, directer of Camp Anne, a camp for people with special needs in Ancramdale, echoed Mr. Weinstein’s concerns, saying, “I’ve never seen any outbreak” in his 26 years at the camp. He recommended further changes in the proposed law and advised that the changes be made at “a statewide level.”
“We see about 700 people come through the camp in the summer, our number one responsibility is for the safety and happiness of the campers–that’s what we do,” Mr. Rose said.
David Fleischner, Director of Camp Scatico in Elizaville said that his family owned camp is celebrating its 100th year in operation. He, too, praised the county Department of Health and Mr. Coons.
Mr. Fleischner, a board member of the American Camp Association for New York, emphasized that the organization does not mandate vaccinations. He said the proposal would make camps the only industry in the state to require vaccinations for employees. “I found that a little hard to wrap my mind around,” he said, adding, “Thanks to the town supervisors for being proactive in postponing this for a bit.”
Board Chairman Matt Murrell (Stockport) said that the public hearing is part of a process. “This is the way it is supposed to work. We will pay close attention and get to work,” he said.