As some districts begin welcoming students for the start of the school year this week, leaders at the state Department of Public Health remain tight-lipped about whether they plan to release the latest assessment of school vaccination rates in Connecticut.
Lawmakers in May said they were expecting to see figures from the 2018-19 year that show what percentage of students at each school claimed the religious exemption to mandatory immunizations. But a lawsuit filed later that month put a stop – at least temporarily – to the disclosure of that data.
On Monday, legislators called on the health department to release the most recent statistics.
“I think it’s the right of parents to know if their child is starting school in a place that may not have herd immunity,” said Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, referring to the indirect protection from disease that occurs when a large number of people become immune, especially by way of vaccination.
“This is about transparency and it’s about providing parents with the appropriate information they need to keep their kids safe and so they can make an educated decision,” Linehan said.
House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter said despite the lawsuit, the state would be “negligent” if it withheld data that showed an increase in vaccine exemptions.
“If the number of people claiming religious exemptions is higher than the previous school year, DPH would be negligent not to release that information,” he said. “I think the state is susceptible to another lawsuit if someone comes down with measles.”
A spokeswoman for the health department did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
“If the number of people claiming religious exemptions is higher than the previous school year, DPH would be negligent not to release that information. I think the state is susceptible to another lawsuit if someone comes down with measles.”
Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford
State Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell last spring made public for the first time a school-by-school assessment of child immunization rates in Connecticut. The figures – from the 2017-18 school year – showed 102 institutions where fewer than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella – the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain herd immunity.
Following the release, legislators said they expected another batch of data to be disclosed – this time for 2018-19 year. But a Bristol couple sued the health department, seeking an injunction to halt the publication of those numbers and requesting the removal of the 2017-18 figures from a state website. The case is pending.
At a July 15 hearing in Hartford Superior Court, a judge asked a lawyer for the health department what it planned to do about the latest round of vaccination data.
“My understanding is that the department has no plans to do so between now and say, 30 days,” said Darren Cunningham, the attorney.
“No plans to what…?” the judge asked.
“Publishing further information,” Cunningham said.
But the 30-day window has closed, and officials with the health department have remained silent about whether they intend to publish the latest information.
Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the newest school-by-school numbers should be kept under wraps while the legal battle plays out. She has argued that the data amounts to an invasion of privacy for parents with unvaccinated children.
“While there’s a pending lawsuit, I just don’t think that would be the smart thing to do,” Pavalock-D’Amato said. “It’s not even necessary. We’ll have to take it up with the judge should that occur.”
Ritter said, however, that there is nothing in the school-by-school data that identifies students by name.
“When the information was released last spring, it was released because the Department of Public Health felt it was important for parents – particularly those of children who are medically compromised and cannot receive vaccinations – to know what the rate of vaccinations are in their schools,” he said. “Nothing in the last few months has transpired that should change the logic of doing that.”
Some districts, including the Farmington Public Schools, began school on Monday, while several others plan to start later this week.
When lawmakers consider whether to repeal the state’s religious exemption from vaccines next year, Ritter said they also will likely move to include new language in state law that mandates the health department release vaccination rates by school. The health commissioner has claimed she has the right to do so, while the plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue she does not.
“As we look at changing the laws around vaccinations in our state, if DPH is not willing to release the data, then we could also change the law to make sure it’s really clear that it should be released,” Ritter said.