Polio declares state of emergency in New York after more polio virus was found

enlarge / Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency on Friday after poliovirus was discovered in wastewater from a fourth county, indicating the dangerous virus continues to spread, possibly in areas with bottomless vaccination rates.

Today’s emergency statement aims to increase 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 records to the state so that health officials can better identify vulnerable areas.

The emergency dates back to July, when officials reported paralytic polio in an unvaccinated adult in Rockland County whose symptoms began in June. On Sept. 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 case of paralytic polio in Rockland. Those 50 genetically linked samples include the newest county to detect polio virus, Nassau, which had one positive wastewater sample last month.

Vaccination rates in the affected provinces are worrying. Rockland County — which is notorious for its generally low vaccination rates after battling a persistent measles outbreak in 2019 — has a polio vaccination rate of just 60 percent in children under age 2, who are recommended to receive three doses of polio vaccine. 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 national average.

But those national averages may mask pockets of even lower vaccination rates. New York State has zip-code-level vaccination coverage data for Rockland and Orange counties — and they’re concerned. In Orange, two zip codes have vaccination rates of 31 percent and 41 percent. Rockland has a zip code with a vaccination rate of just 37 percent. The health ministry says its goal is to achieve vaccination rates above 90 percent.

“In polio, we just can’t play dice,” said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett in a statement on Friday. “If you or your child is not vaccinated or up to date on the vaccinations, the risk of paralysis is real. I urge New Yorkers not to accept any risk at all.”