As lawmakers prepare to release the first draft of a highly anticipated bill that would eliminate Connecticut’s religious exemption from vaccines, one sticking point in the debate is what to do about children already enrolled in school who have claimed the exemption.
Legislators in a bipartisan working group are mulling whether to make an exception for those children and allow them to remain in school. That means only new children entering the state’s public and private schools would be barred from choosing the religious exemption.
“The concept of ‘grandfathering in’ kids versus leaving an appropriate period for compliance – we’ve gone back and forth on that. That is one of the thornier issues,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a co-chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee. “Even if we came to consensus today, I’m not so sure that necessarily would be reflected in the final bill. It’s still a subject for conversation.”
The 2020 legislative session is only three months long and lawmakers are up for re-election next year – two conditions that make it harder for controversial legislation to succeed. To give the bill a better chance of passing, proponents are exploring ways to make it less contentious, including allowing some unvaccinated students to stay in school.
“It goes without saying there are political considerations,” Steinberg said. “There’s always a risk, whatever approach you take, that you’re making your job harder or easier. You have to start thinking: Am I going to start shedding legislators who might otherwise vote in favor of it?”
During the 2018-19 year, at least 1,469 students claimed the religious exemption, according to Department of Public Health figures. The agency records exemptions for kindergarteners and 7thgraders. State health officials said the total number of students who were not vaccinated for religious reasons last year may be higher.
“You have to start thinking: Am I going to start shedding legislators who might otherwise vote in favor of it?”
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg
Gov. Ned Lamont and State Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell have recommended the religious 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 some unvaccinated kids from enrolling in Connecticut’s public and private schools. Coleman-Mitchell and other state officials have cited concern for children with compromised immune systems who cannot receive shots for medical reasons.
State and legislative leaders have pointed to the national measles outbreak this year and to state data that show dozens of schools have fallen below the threshold needed to maintain herd immunity as reasons to erase the religious exemption.
The most recent data released by DPH show the number of Connecticut schools where fewer than 95% of kindergarten students were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella increased by 31% last year, driven by the rise in students claiming the religious exemption. The figures 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 number of students choosing the religious exemption rose by 25%, the largest increase recorded by the state since it began tracking the information a decade ago.
It’s unclear if the idea to ‘grandfather in’ children would help the bill gather support. The suggestion already has drawn skepticism from some parent groups and appears not to have swayed staunch opponents.
Milly Arciniegas, executive director of Hartford Parent University, an advocacy and training group for parents in the Hartford area, questioned the need to allow children claiming the religious exemption to remain in school.
“If you want to make it safe for all kids, then it counts for all kids,” she said. “There is no such thing as ‘grandfathered.’”
Republicans who are part of the legislature’s Conservative Caucus have long been opposed to a repeal of the exemption, and news that some children who use it might be able to stay in school did little to change that.
“If you want to make it safe for all kids, then it counts for all kids. There is no such thing as ‘grandfathered.’”
Hartford Parent University
“Anybody that has a child after 2020 no longer gets to make medical decisions for their child,” said Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly. “I don’t understand how they can give everybody medical freedom up until 2021, and then anybody after that doesn’t have medical freedom. It makes no sense to me.”
Brian Festa, who with his wife filed a lawsuit last spring seeking to block the release of the school-level immunization data in Connecticut, said the proposal to ‘grandfather in’ children doesn’t make sense. Festa belongs to the group CT Freedom Alliance, which is opposed to a repeal of the religious exemption.
“From our perspective, freedom is freedom and freedom is for all. It doesn’t apply to one group, only up to a certain point, and then another group doesn’t get those same freedoms,” he said. “Either it’s a freedom worth protecting, or it’s a freedom not worth protecting.”
“Either it’s a freedom worth protecting, or it’s a freedom not worth protecting.”
A draft of the bill that aims to wipe out the religious exemption is expected to be shared as early as next month. The legislative session begins Feb. 5.
Lawmakers said they will hold at least one public hearing to get input before the bill is voted on at the committee level.
Among the other issues being debated by lawmakers is the type of language that would govern medical exemptions going forward. In California, medical exemptions quadrupled after the legislature repealed the state’s religious exemption in 2015, raising concerns that some doctors there were providing fraudulent waivers. California recently imposed new restrictions on medical exemptions.
Connecticut lawmakers are trying to head off that problem should a repeal of the religious exemption be successful.
“There are things we’re trying to do that other states haven’t in terms of the way we’re structuring the medical exemption, where we’re talking about trying to improve education and dialogue between patient and practitioner,” Steinberg said. “We’re not sure whether we should or need to offer rigid guidelines, but we at least want to help them understand what the appropriate basis is for using their discretion.
“We want a really easy-to-explain and to-defend medical exemption.”