Lawmakers have scheduled a public hearing on a bill to repeal the state's religious exemption from vaccines on Feb. 19.
Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to publicly support a repeal on the state’s religious exemption to vaccines Monday.
Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to publicly support a repeal on the state’s religious exemption to vaccines Monday.

After months of prodding by lawmakers to take a stance on repealing Connecticut’s religious exemption from vaccines, state Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell is expected to announce Monday that she is supporting the rollback.

Coleman-Mitchell will be joined by Gov. Ned Lamont, who also is backing the repeal. Their disclosure will come two weeks after the public health department released data showing the number of students who claimed the religious exemption rose by 25% between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.

“I’ve always thought that it was important to have the Department of Public Health weigh in, so I’m glad they are weighing in in a very detailed way,” House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, a proponent of wiping out the religious exemption, said Friday.

Ritter and other Democratic legislative leaders wrote a letter to Coleman-Mitchell in June asking whether the legislature should abolish the exemption. The commissioner said she would respond, but months passed without an answer. Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney recently expressed frustration about the delay, saying the commissioner had not been responsive.

Ritter, Looney and other legislative leaders have been invited to attend Monday’s announcement.

“I expect a response next week to our letter and I am told it is very, very detailed, which I appreciate,” Ritter said.

Supporters of the plan to repeal the religious exemption see Lamont and Coleman-Mitchell’s backing as a crucial step forward in their fight. After this year’s attempts to end the exemption fizzled, they pledged to revive the issue during the next legislative session.

“This goes a long way,” Ritter said of Lamont’s endorsement. “It’s something that you need. You need the governor of the state of Connecticut to come out and say this what we’re going to do. He’s the leader that people look to. So I think it’s an important step in terms of the bill passing.”

Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell, who has been reluctant to offer an opinion on the subject, is expected to take a position Monday. Governor's office

Spokesmen for Lamont and Coleman-Mitchell declined to comment Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, could not be reached.

Coleman-Mitchell has been a reluctant figure on the subject of vaccine exemptions. In addition to the Democrats’ letter, lawmakers repeatedly called for her input last spring as they mulled legislation to erase the religious exemption. Each time, the commissioner brushed aside their requests.

When approached by reporters last month, she said it wasn’t her job to opine on pending legislation.

“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. “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.”

Looney said Friday that the commissioner changed her mind after completing “a lot of research” on vaccine exemptions.

“Her reconsideration of her prior position is belated, but still welcome because it’s going to help us in passing a bill next year,” he said. “It’s a matter of public health. It is not a matter of philosophy or religion. We’ve heard from many parents who are very concerned about this, who have immunocompromised children.”

Part of lawmakers’ drive to get the commissioner on board stems from results in other states. Maine, Washington and New York – all of which succeeded in rolling back religious or philosophical exemptions this year – had the backing of their public health officials.

“It’s high time that she’s doing this,” State Rep. Liz Linehan, a supporter of the repeal, said Friday. “I’m glad to see that she’s willing to stand up and say publicly that the numbers indicate there is cause for concern and we should be eliminating the religious exemption.”

Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, a Republican lawmaker and attorney representing a Bristol couple that has sued to block the release of school-by-school vaccination data, questioned the motives of Lamont and Coleman-Mitchell. Part of the reason for trying to halt the data release, she has said, is a concern that lawmakers will use it as a scare tactic to bully people into vaccinating.

“We’ve had three measles cases this year” in the state, Pavalock-D’Amato said. “And given that the health commissioner herself said there was no state of emergency or threat in Connecticut, I’m not sure why they’re pushing this.”

In late August, the health department released statistics showing the number of students who claimed the religious exemption had increased by 25%, the largest single-year jump in people choosing the exemption since the department began tracking statewide immunization data a decade ago.

The data also showed the percentage of kindergarteners who were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella decreased between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, to 95.9%, down from 96.5%.

Ritter said there are no plans to raise the proposal in a special session this fall. Lawmakers will introduce a bill during the regular session that begins in February so the public has a chance to weigh in. The proposal would not force children to be vaccinated, but it would prohibit those who are not immunized on religious grounds from enrolling in the state’s public schools.

“The school year has already begun, so any changes we make would not be effective this school year anyway, even if you passed a bill in special session,” Ritter said. “I don’t think the timing of October versus February or March or April makes a big difference in terms of the implementation of a new law.”

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

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  1. It’s about time the commissioner came out publicly with a stance. The exemptions need to end for the benefit of the entire community. Are you against vaccinations? No problem. Home school your child and don’t put others at risk. That’s not what they signed up for when their children were vaccinated. Science works.

    1. Religious Exemptions have been a thing for the longest time. Has it ever been a problem?? Outbreaks of anything these vaccinations are supposed to protect against? So It’s ok for a HIV pos, Hep B Pos, TB pos to go to school, but a Healthy Unvaccinated Child not attend? Um OK.

    2. Jack, do you honestly believe that the CDC is giving you both sides to the story or just the side that makes their position look the strongest? Trust me I read it and like any good salesman, so very convincing, but there’s also risks that you’re not seeing there. Why do you think it took so long for the commissioner to take a stance? She knows both sides to it, and they’re both convincing.
      When they were talking about a mandatory small pox vaccination for the entire country, what was your stance then? How did you feel about them taking away your freedom of choice then?

    1. I think requiring vaccination to enroll in a public school makes perfect sense. How is that government overreach? You can still choose not to vaccinate your children, but you’re not allowed to endanger other people’s children.

      1. Emily regardless of whether you’re for or against vaccination, are you for or against the government telling you how to take care of your children or yourself even? Are you for against the freedom of choice?

      2. Most people these days are. They have no knowledge of what America really is. Their idea of freedom is having government ban everything they don’t like.

      3. There are those who cannot be vaccinated for genuine medical reasons, as well as those who may have been vaccinated but had a poor response to vaccination (that can happen!).
        Vaccination enabled herd immunity levels need to be maintained, which protects everyone.
        The outcome of poor vaccination uptake is only too readily seen as witnessed with recent measles outbreaks.
        In Europe in 2018 there were over 80,000 measles cases and 74 deaths, due to abysmal uptake rates in many countries.
        Do you want that scenario here?

      4. We just aren’t talking about the measles. They want these children fully vaxxed with everything. Kids have to be, but the faculty does not have to show proof of any immunizations.

      5. Those that are immuncompromised i think what you are saying? How many of them are in school? It’s ok for all the faculty to not show any proof of immunizations? Vaccines are not 100% safe. Just because they make our immune system make antibodies does not mean that you wont catch that virus or disease you are vaccinated for. Look at the amount they give. Anyone over the age of 40 didnt come close to that amount.

      6. If faculty are over a certain age, they will have had the natural diseases and be immune. Younger members of faculty may well have had the vaccines as children, and still be immune.
        However, you make a reasonable case for ensuring staff are up to date with vaccines and have had the required boosters – and maybe they should also be barred if they haven’t.

    1. Hi irish33, please note our commenting guidelines: “Comments that include any of the following will not be published: Comments that ONLY include a link or image.”

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