The office of Gov. Ned Lamont pledged Wednesday to release school-by-school immunization rates, contradicting the commissioner of public health barely an hour after she reiterated to two reporters the data would remain off limits to parents and policy makers.
“The governor believes strongly that this is important information for the public and policymakers to have at their disposal,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s director of communications.
Statewide data to be released Thursday will show an increasing number of parents refused to vaccinate their children last year, claiming a religious objection, said Commissioner Renée Coleman-Mitchell. While the overall state immunization rate fell, it still exceeds the 95-percent threshold necessary to provide “herd immunity” for children unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons.
School-by-school numbers will be released as soon as they are verified, Reiss said.
In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Coleman-Mitchell downplayed the conflict with the governor’s office and DPH’s shifting position over what parents should know about immunization rates at their children’s schools. Instead, she said parents should heed the advice of DPH to immunize their children for their sake and their classmates.
“We know this is a sensitive issue,” she said.
The medical and scientific community overwhelming vouch for the safety and efficacy of the childhood vaccinations, and peer-reviewed studies consistently find no link to autism, a frequent concern raised by parents wary of vaccines. But parents refusing to immunize their children, while still a small minority, have steadily increased.
A Bristol couple sued the department, seeking an injunction that would stop the publication of school-by-school immunization rates for the 2018-2019 school year and force the removal of the 2017-18 figures from a state website. Those numbers showed 102 schools with immunization rates of less than 95 percent. The case is pending.
Coleman-Mitchell has been a reluctant figure in the fight over whether the data should be public or if religious exemptions to immunizations pose a public health threat. She has declined to advise lawmakers on the issue.
“I can only talk about the public health aspect of immunizations and the importance in regards to herd immunity and in regards to immunization rates and educating people about it,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “I am not able, nor should I weigh in on anything that’s public legislation that comes about as a result of any of the work we do. That’s not in the purview of my role.”
On Tuesday, Coleman-Mitchell had declared an end to the measles outbreak that prompted her in May to release school-by-school immunization rates for the first time, publishing data for the 2017-2018 school year. She said she no longer saw a reason to release updated figures because the outbreak was over.
There have been three cases of the measles, a highly contagious airborne disease, since April.
On Wednesday afternoon, Coleman-Mitchell was firm in her decision to only release county or statewide numbers, insisting she was in accord with the governor’s office.
“There’s been much discussion with the governor’s office, with the Department of Public Health — of course myself as commissioner am quite involved in regards to what the next steps would be, so communication has absolutely occurred,” she said to reporters who approached her after a public meeting at the Legislative Office Building.
An aide repeatedly tried to cut the interview short.
In a telephone interview Wednesday night, after Reiss announced the school-by-school numbers would be made public as soon as they were verified, Coleman-Mitchell said the increase in religious exemptions provided a rationale for the release. Unexplained was why Coleman-Mitchell, who knew about the exemptions, originally opposed the publication of the individual school rates.
Reiss did not address the degree to which the governor’s office had been consulted before Coleman-Mitchell’s Tuesday announcement, nor would he comment on whether the governor concurred with Coleman-Mitichell’s approach to public health.
But Reiss made clear the governor and the commissioner disagree on making school-by-school data public.
“The Department of Public Health will be releasing vaccination data relating to herd immunity and religious exemptions this week,” Reiss said. “Further, when the school-by-school immunization data has been verified for accuracy, it will be released.”