NEW YORK — The polio virus has been detected in New York City, health authorities said Friday, a jarring discovery arriving three weeks after the long-defeated virus reemerged in Rockland County north of the city. The potentially deadly virus was detected in sewage samples collected in the city.
Before the Rockland County case, the U.S. had gone almost a decade without logging any polio cases. But the reported arrival of the paralyzing pathogen in the five boroughs suggested local community spread.
“This is something we’re monitoring closely,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a Long Island news conference, adding that the state is working in tandem with the federal government. “This is a very, very serious disease.”
The governor said vaccinations represent New York’s best defense against the return of polio, and that the time has arrived to “sound the alarm” about the threat.
Though about 70% of people infected with the highly contagious polio virus do not display symptoms, around 25% suffer flulike symptoms, according to the federal government. In less than 1% of cases, the virus invades the spinal cord and causes paralysis.
“For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” Dr. Mary Bassett, the state health commissioner, said in a statement. “The detection of poliovirus in wastewater samples in New York City is alarming, but not surprising.”
Polio was mostly driven out of the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century, after the introduction of vaccines for the virus in 1955. Complete vaccinations provide almost total protection against polio.
“The risk to New Yorkers is real but the defense is so simple — get vaccinated against polio,” Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the city health commissioner, said in a statement. “Polio is entirely preventable and its reappearance should be a call to action for all of us.”
Authorities said people who are unsure of their vaccination status should also receive shots.
School children in New York are required to be vaccinated against polio, according to state Health Department rules. But there is no federal mandate, and the state does not have requirements for homeschooled kids.
During the pandemic, polio vaccination rates have slumped in the city.
“The reason why this is an issue is exclusively related to the fact that vaccination rates are low,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “These are the consequences of the anti-vaccine movement making inroads into the population.
“This should only be thought of as self-inflicted,” he added.
About 14% of New York City children between ages 6 months and 5 years old have not been fully vaccinated against polio, according to authorities. A full inoculation involves at least three doses.
In Brooklyn ZIP codes sprawled over neighborhoods including Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, the vaccination rate in the age group is under 60%, according to government data.
In a statement, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso said his “urge to all Brooklynites who may be unvaccinated is to talk to a medical professional about getting vaccinated.”
Areas of Staten Island and southern and eastern Queens have rates under 70%, according to the data. The city did not immediately specify on Friday where it had tracked the virus.
Statewide, about 80% of 2-year-old tots have full polio vaccination coverage, according to authorities. But in Rockland County, home to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities wary of vaccines, the rate is around 60%, the state Health Department reported.
In 2018 and 2019, Rockland County had an unprecedented outbreak of measles, another virus preventable through vaccination. That outbreak spurred New York lawmakers to erase vaccination exemptions based on religious beliefs.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., expressed concerns about areas where vaccination resistance is high, but suggested that the lagging vaccination rate in New York City partly stems from COVID-era delays in pediatric visits.
“I would hope that every parent and every doc is trying to catch their children up,” Schaffner said. “Polio vaccination in particular is just extraordinarily successful in preventing this paralytic disease which can leave you with a disability for the rest of your life.”
Wes Hazlitt of Manitoba, Canada, contracted polio in 1953, before the arrival of the polio vaccine, when he was just 13 months old.
He recovered and learned to walk. But he later suffered from post-polio syndrome, leaving him weakened by crushing fatigue, and forcing him into a wheelchair before he turned 50.
He said many doctors are now ill-informed about polio and that he is worried some people who contract polio now may suffer much more severe symptoms as they age.
“People don’t know about polio,” Hazlitt, 70, said Friday afternoon. “Because they’ve never seen it. They’re not worried about getting vaccinated because they think they’re healthy.”
“It concerns me that ‘covidiots’ that don’t believe in the COVID vaccine are also lumping in polio and measles and all vaccines and saying they don’t work,” he said. “Polio vaccine worked.”
(New York Daily News writer Denis Slattery contributed to this story.)