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.”
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.”