The polio virus was discovered in wastewater samples in New York City, showing the once-eradicated and potentially paralyzing disease is circulating farther than places in Rockland and Orange counties where it already had been found, state and New York City health officials announced on Friday.
The announcement gave no details about where in New York City the virus had surfaced and the date or dates of the sewage samples in which it was found. Health officials started testing past and current wastewater samples for polio traces after a Rockland County man suffered paralysis and was diagnosed with polio, the first U.S. case of the disease in years.
As of Aug. 4, the state Department of Health had said the polio virus had turned up in 11 sewage samples taken in Orange and Rockland counties in June and July. In Friday’s announcement, officials said they now had positive results form one or both of those counties from May, signifying the disease had been circulating among unvaccinated people earlier than previously known.
“For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said. “The detection of poliovirus in wastewater samples in New York City is alarming, but not surprising.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’:How state health officials are setting off alarms over polio
Rockland County officials announced on July 21 that a young adult had been diagnosed with polio. The person was no longer contagious, officials said, but had suffered paralysis as a result of the illness.
The polio patient had never been vaccinated against the virus, officials said.
The polio case – the first apparently transmitted within the U.S. since 1979 – came from a person who had taken an oral polio vaccine in a different country. A rare complication of the live vaccine, which has not been given in the U.S. in more than two decades, allowed the person to develop a mild case of the virus and shed it.
Officials working to vaccinate New Yorkers against polio
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has moved a small team into offices at the Rockland County’s health complex in Pomona.
“It’s a natural course of events,” said Rockland County Executive Ed Day. A CDC field office was also set up during the 2018-2019 measles outbreak, when Rockland was an epicenter and saw more than 300 cases.
Meanwhile, local outreach for vaccinations continue. Rockland County has partnered with Good Samaritan Hospital, Montefiore Nyack, RefuahHealth and Serenity Health to produce 5,000 copies of an information flyer in four languages: English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and Yiddish.
More than 1,400 polio vaccinations have been given in Rockland since the case was reported, county officials said.
Agencies with connections to the Orthodox Jewish and immigrant communities have been key, Day said.
“Rockland County is one of the most diverse in New York State,” Day said. “Our Department of Health has spent the last few weeks working closely with community partners to develop messaging that’s effective and impactful to all of our residents. Reaching all corners of Rockland with the simple message that polio is dangerous and only preventable by immunization is critical.”
Vaccination numbers lag as polio spreads
Vaccination rates have lagged for small children during the COVID pandemic, which some delayed well-baby checkups and vaccination hesitancy grew.
Rockland and Orange counties have lagged behind much of the state. While school vaccination rates remain high – a 2019 law restricted vaccination exemptions for children in public and private schools – the rate for children under 2 is lower than many other areas of the state.
Rockland County, for example, has a polio vaccination rate of 60.34% and Orange County has a polio vaccination rate of 58.68% among children who have received three polio immunizations before their second birthday, according to state health department data from Aug. 1, 2022.
In New York City, 86.2% of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years old have received the recommended three doses of the polio vaccine.
But there are NYC neighborhoods where polio vaccination coverage of children aged 6 months to 5 years, dips even further. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example, has a polio vaccination rate for children in that age range that is just above 70%.
The statewide vaccination rate for children 2 and under stands at about 79%.
“The risk to New Yorkers is real but the defense is so simple – get vaccinated against polio,” said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. “Polio is entirely preventable and its reappearance should be a call to action for all of us.”