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Finger Lakes family back in court over son’s vaccine exemption

Brett Dahlberg
A group of people supporting the Schwartz family gathered outside the Yates County Courthouse Friday before a hearing on medical exemptions to vaccines for Thorn Schwartz.

A Yates County family whose son was barred from school after being denied a medical exemption for vaccines was back in court Friday, arguing that he should be allowed back in school permanently.

Carl Schwartz said his son, Thorn, has severe reactions to vaccines. He said the family’s doctor agrees, and Thorn has not been vaccinated in almost a decade.

Still, Carl said no doctor has found a causal link between Thorn’s reactions and a vaccine.

Thorn had been getting medical exemptions that allowed him to go to school without his vaccines until last year, when New York state tightened the rules around those exemptions. That meant Thorn was no longer allowed in school.

Earlier this month, though, Yates County Supreme Court Judge Daniel Doyle directed Monroe BOCES 1, where Thorn goes to school, to re-admit him temporarily.

Before Friday’s hearing, a crowd of supporters chanted “Respect medical exemptions” outside the courthouse.

Attorney Patricia Finn speaks for the Schwartz family in court Friday as opposing attorneys confer behind her.
Attorney Patricia Finn speaks for the Schwartz family in court Friday as opposing attorneys confer behind her.

The case is different from other challenges to New York’s vaccination rules, which have centered on the end of religious exemptions and have largely been upheld in court.

In this case, The Schwartzes’ attorney, Patricia Finn, argued that the state should not second-guess the doctor who determined that vaccination would be harmful to Thorn.

Doyle asked her if the state ever has any right to question a doctor’s opinion on vaccines.

Finn said, basically, no.

“I don’t think that the state is in a position where it can start drilling into every single medical opinion of a doctor,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the doctor.”

In the state’s point of view, Assistant Attorney General Heather McKay said, the government needs to be able to set and enforce some ground rules for the exemptions.

“If there’s a medical exemption, in order to be valid, it should be grounded with a medical reason.”

Doyle did not rule on the case at the end of the hearing. He ordered both sides to submit written arguments on the medical conditions underlying Thorn’s vaccine exemption.

A lawyer himself, Carl said he did not want to make any predictions about Doyle’s eventual decision. “You make your argument. You -- you let the judge be the judge,” he said. “I have learned, you know, don’t second-guess that judge.”

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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