The number of students claiming religious exemptions to mandatory vaccinations rose by 25 percent between 2017-18 and 2018-19, DPH said Thursday. NHS Employers / via Flickr Creative Commons
Renée Coleman-Mitchell, commissioner of public health, with Gov. Ned Lamont at a September press conference where they recommended a repeal of the state’s religious exemption to vaccines.

The number of Connecticut schools where fewer than 95% of kindergarten students were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella increased by 31% last year, a trend driven by the rise in religious exemptions to mandatory immunizations.

Data released by the state’s public health department Monday show 134 schools at which fewer than 95% of kindergarteners received a measles vaccination in 2018-19, up from 102 schools a year earlier. The 95% threshold is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain herd immunity – the indirect protection from infectious diseases that occurs when a large number of people become immune, especially by way of vaccination.

The data also show an increase of 25% in the number of students claiming the religious exemption, the largest recorded by the state since it began tracking the information a decade ago.

Statewide, the percentage of kindergarten students immunized against measles, mumps and rubella was 96.1%, down from 96.5% a year earlier. All schools with more than 30 kindergarteners were included in the state’s assessment.

“I am very concerned that the number of schools falling short of this important immunization level continues to rise,” Health Commissioner Renee D. Coleman-Mitchell said. “The data reveal that a sharp rise in the number of religious exemptions is causing declining immunization rates. This unnecessarily puts our children at risk for contracting measles and other vaccine preventable diseases.”

The data release Monday ended a months-long court battle over disclosure of the school-level information. A Bristol couple had sued to block the publication of the 2018-19 figures, saying it exposed families who opted against vaccination, even though no children’s names are included in the data. A Superior Court judge last month dismissed the lawsuit, noting that the parents, Brian and Kristen Festa, has not exhausted all of their administrative remedies.

The Festas appealed and sought a last-minute injunction against the data disclosure. Judge Susan Quinn Cobb denied their motion Monday morning, just hours before the immunization figures were published.

Brian Festa said later that the data release had effectively ended the litigation. There no longer is any meaningful relief he could obtain in court, at least relating to the latest figures, he said.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Festa said Monday night.

State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, right, represented the Festas in the vaccine data court case.

This is the only the second time that state officials have made public the school-by-school percentages. In May, amid a national measles outbreak, Coleman-Mitchell released the first round of data, from the 2017-18 school year.

Lawmakers, Gov. Ned Lamont and Coleman-Mitchell pointed to the most recent figures and those from a year earlier as evidence that the state’s religious exemption should be repealed. Democratic leaders vowed to introduce a rollback of the provision when the legislative session begins in February.

Lamont and the health commissioner have recommended that the exemption be eliminated effective Oct. 21, 2021 to give parents time to prepare for the change. Vaccinations are required for all students entering public and private schools, but home-schoolers are not covered.

The proposed legislation would not force children to be immunized, but it would bar most unvaccinated children from enrolling in Connecticut’s public and private schools. State officials have cited concern for children with compromised immune systems who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, praised the court’s decision to allow the data disclosure and said the results were troubling.

“This data is critical to the public health of Connecticut’s children and will be valuable to informing the state’s policy makers on any steps we may need to take,” he said Monday. “I am concerned with some of the low immunization rates at certain Connecticut public schools. I will continue to review the data, work with public health officials, and determine what steps the state needs to take to protect our children.”

Lamont, who has publicly backed a repeal of the religious exemption, said the information released Monday highlights the need for legislative action.

“This data shows that our state is continuing to see an increase in the number of students whose parents and guardians are choosing to not provide them with lifesaving immunizations,” he said. “We need to do more to protect children against preventable diseases, which is why it is even more pressing that we work with the General Assembly to repeal the non-medical exemptions in the interests of public health.”

CT Mirror Reporter Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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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