Legislative leaders ramped up pressure Thursday on the state’s new commissioner of public health, asking her to take a formal position on the hot-button issue of vaccine exemptions.
“Should Connecticut remove the religious exemption from state law like Maine recently did … or is there an alternative that will similarly increase vaccination rates in under-vaccinated schools and protect children who cannot be vaccinated?,” Sen. President Pro Tem Martin Looney, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter wrote in a letter to Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell.
Coleman-Mitchell, who assumed her position in late March as lawmakers floated the idea of repealing Connecticut’s religious waiver to vaccines, so far has not taken a stance on the issue. She testified at a May public hearing that her office released immunization-related data with the aim of boosting public awareness. But she has remained outside the political fray.
Democratic legislators appear to be challenging that strategy.
In their letter, the lawmakers asked Coleman-Mitchell what additional statutory authority the public health department needs to increase immunization rates at certain schools or to close schools “in the case of an outbreak of certain diseases.”
The lawmakers also pressed her on what steps the state should take to protect children who cannot receive vaccinations due to immunodeficiencies or allergies.
“We are concerned that vaccination rates in certain Connecticut school districts and individual schools are trending at levels below what is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” they wrote. “In some cases, the rates are 15 percent to 30 percent below what is recommended.”
In May, the public health department released the state’s first school-by-school assessment of child immunization rates. The data from the 2017-18 year show 102 schools where fewer than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella – the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The figures sparked outrage among politicians and an aggressive, last-minute push to repeal the state’s religious exemption to vaccines. Lawmakers ultimately decided to shelve the issue until next year.
“The vaccine data your office provided … was a concrete illustration of this alarming trend, and we thank you and your staff for being available to the legislature to explain this complex issue,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “However, we are in need of additional data and policy recommendations from your agency to help inform legislative decisions on this important topic going forward.”
Lawmakers said last month that they were awaiting the 2018-19 school year data, expected to be released by DPH sometime in June.
Whether or not that data will still be made public is unclear. A Bristol couple with a 7-year-old son has sued to block the release of future school-by-school vaccination figures. Following the lawsuit, a DPH spokesman said the data release was “under consideration,” but declined further comment. The next court appearance in the case is scheduled for July 15.
Av Harris, Coleman-Mitchell’s spokesman, confirmed Thursday that the commissioner had received the letter but declined to discuss the department’s response. “We will review it, do the research and answer their questions as early as possible, but it will take some time,” he said.
Democratic legislators stopped short of asking Coleman-Mitchell about the 2018-19 data in their letter.
Ritter said lawmakers are confident the health department is still on track to release the most recent school-by-school figures, but he did not say when that might happen.
“I trust in their judgment. I believe it will happen with plenty of time to look at it and see what, if any, impact that has on the 2020 legislative proposal we come up with,” Ritter said.
“Until I hear otherwise, I’m assuming it will be released,” he added. “It’s important for the public and the legislature to see that. We have to make a very difficult decision next year.”