Lawmakers seeking to repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption from vaccines delivered a strict opening salvo Friday – a proposal that children who are not vaccinated on religious grounds be barred from attending public and private schools beginning next fall.
In the first draft of the contentious bill, legislators call for unvaccinated children – except those who abstain for medical reasons – to be prohibited from attending school beginning in the 2020-21 year.
Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell had previously suggested the exemption be erased starting Oct. 21, 2021 – a full year later – to give parents time to adjust. But lawmakers are pressing for a tighter timetable.
“The consensus that has been reached to date is this is a growing problem and the trends are very troublesome,” House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said Friday. “There are Republicans and Democrats who are united in the notion that Connecticut has to do something or else we’re going to wake up in three years and have 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 more kids without vaccinations enrolled in the schools.”
In the bill, lawmakers also are directing the Department of Public Health to release school-by-school immunization data on an annual basis. Coleman-Mitchell published the school-level data for the first time last May. The initial round showed immunization rates for the 2017-18 year.
Coleman-Mitchell initially declined to release a subsequent round of data – for the 2018-19 school year – but was overruled by Gov. Ned Lamont. Data for 2018-19 was released in October, showing there were 134 schools at which fewer than 95% of kindergarteners received a measles vaccination. The 95% threshold is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain herd immunity.
If passed by the General Assembly, the bill also would establish a board to examine Connecticut’s vaccine program and advise the health commissioner. The group would have regular discussions with physicians who are in a position to grant medical exemptions.
“We’re giving them pretty wide responsibility to look at things like educating practitioners, so [physicians] are in a better position to have communication with families, and then looking at outliers or other issues that may occur as a result of legislation,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said Friday.
Lawmakers who participated in a working group that offered input on the issue expressed frustration Friday at what they called a lack of transparency around the bill.
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said despite serving as a member of the group for months, he saw the bill for the first time on Friday.
“We had drafts in the working group, but that language was thrown out and we were later told there was all new language,” he said. “I think it really points to a major problem. It’s very disconcerting that these elected officials are turning our open government process into a secret one. That’s why the public doesn’t trust us.”
Brian Festa, a co-founder of CT Freedom Alliance, which opposes the plan, took issue with several of the bill’s mandates, including the annual release of school-level data. Festa had filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the disclosure of school-by-school immunization rates.
“In one fell swoop, this legislation would obliterate the religious liberties of hundreds of thousands of Connecticut schoolchildren, while simultaneously mandating the Department of Public Health to release confidential immunization information for every public and private school student in the state,” he said.
Lawmakers have scheduled a Feb. 19 public hearing on the bill at the state’s Legislative Office Building.