This story was updated at 5:45 p.m.
Legislators who in recent weeks had accelerated efforts to repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption on mandatory immunizations reversed themselves Thursday, abandoning their quest amid concerns about what to do with unvaccinated children who are already enrolled in school.
The change would not have forced children to be immunized, but it would have prohibited kids who are not vaccinated on religious grounds from enrolling in the state’s public schools. A sticking point in the debate was whether children already attending school should be allowed to return, or if the ban should only apply to those who had not yet enrolled.
“A lot of people were struggling. What do you do with a 17-year-old kid who’s a junior in high school? These are really hard things,” said House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford. “I don’t think the debate is so much about the problem. Everyone now identifies there’s a problem in Connecticut. The question is what do you do about these very difficult situations.”
Legislators also want more input from the state Department of Public Health. DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell has not taken a position on whether the General Assembly should remove the religious exemption.
Coleman-Mitchell must weigh in on what statutory authority is needed to boost vaccination rates in schools, what to do about children already enrolled in school, and whether lawmakers should wipe out the exemption or pursue other action, Ritter said.
“They are going to have to be more forthcoming about what they think the state of Connecticut should do,” he said. “I think a lot of people said, ‘It would be nice to have DPH, as the medical experts for the state, speak a little more on that.’”
In a prepared statement Thursday, Coleman-Mitchell said she will review the legislature’s request and respond “as soon as possible.”
“Overall, our immunization rate for vaccine-preventable diseases is strong in Connecticut. As recent data show, however, we do have pockets of vulnerability within our state and that is a public health concern,” she said. “Collectively considering all options to increase the rate of vaccination among our children is a desirable public health strategy.”
Earlier this week, hundreds flooded a hearing room and overflow spaces at the state’s Legislative Office Building to urge the General Assembly not to move ahead with dismantling the religious exemption.
They called the last-minute push unfair and threatened to vote against politicians who supported the repeal.
Lawmakers originally had planned to introduce a bill within a year that would eliminate the religious waivers, but hastened their effort after reviewing school-by-school vaccination data released by Connecticut’s public health department. The data from the 2017-18 year show 102 schools where less than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella – the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Several schools recorded double-digit percentages for religious exemptions to vaccines.
The health department is expected to release more recent figures – from the 2018-19 school year – in June. Ritter said preliminary data show that the exemption rates will be higher than the 2017-18 percentages.
The agency has reported three measles cases so far this year. Nationally, hundreds of cases have been recorded across more than 20 states. Health officials called the outbreak the worst in the country in 25 years.
Lawmakers have cited concerns for school-aged children who cannot receive vaccinations because of immunodeficiencies, and pointed to other states, like California, Mississippi and West Virginia, that have eliminated religious or philosophical exemptions. Maine’s legislature voted this week to end the state’s religious waivers.
LeeAnn Ducat, the founder of Informed Choice USA, which has vehemently opposed the push to halt Connecticut’s exemption, said Thursday that despite this year’s win, activists would continue to fight.
“There are thousands of Connecticut families that are breathing a sigh of relief today after several days of anxiety and apprehension,” she said. “We are very grateful that lawmakers decided to handle this situation with the delicateness it deserves. Rushing it would have been detrimental.”
But, she said, “We will never go away. If they continue to bring this up, we will continue to come back. If they continue to push this, our numbers are only going to grow.”
Last week, Attorney General William Tong said there is no constitutional barrier to removing the state’s religious exemption. His opinion was prompted by an inquiry from Ritter.
Legislative leaders said they would revisit the issue next year. An overwhelming number of lawmakers in the House and Senate – including some Republicans – support the repeal, they said.
“I don’t see this as a step back. I see this as perhaps a slowing down,” said Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire. “A step back indicates there is some sort of reasoning why we shouldn’t do this. There continues to be every reason why we need to move forward. We’re going to look carefully at how we move forward so we don’t have to come back and fix it later.”