Hundreds turn out to testify on plan to repeal CT’s religious vaccine exemption
Leaders of the state’s public health department pressed Wednesday for a repeal of Connecticut’s non-medical exemption from mandatory vaccinations, arguing that a growing contingent of vaccine skeptics are putting schoolchildren in jeopardy by refusing to immunize their children on religious grounds.
“After looking at the trends, I believe we can no longer afford to put our children at risk of infectious diseases by allowing non-medical exemptions,” Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell told legislators at a public hearing on the proposal. “We should not wait until our vaccination rates decline any further, or wait for the next measles outbreak, to take action.”
Coleman-Mitchell pointed to data gathered by her department that show 134 schools at which fewer than 95% of kindergarteners received a measles vaccination in 2018-19. The 95% threshold is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain herd immunity, the indirect protection that occurs when a large number of people become immune, especially by way of vaccination.
She also cited a steep rise in the number of children claiming the religious exemption. Data show an increase of 25% in the number of kindergarteners abstaining from the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine on the basis of religion – the largest recorded by the state since it began tracking the information a decade ago.
Last year, about 7,800 children in total abstained from mandatory vaccines by electing the exemption.
“This will turn a lot of lives upside down. Those who don’t comply could be denied an education, segregated from their peers.”
James Turkosz, Woodbridge resident and father of two
Coleman-Mitchell expressed concern for children with compromised immune systems who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
“Vaccines are most effective when the maximum number of people in a community are immunized. Community immunity cannot maintain itself,” she said Wednesday. “We must be vigilant to maintain high vaccination levels that prevent infectious diseases from gaining a foothold in our communities.”
The bill before the legislature would repeal the 60-year-old provision beginning next fall. Children would have to receive all required vaccinations before starting or returning to school in August or September. Mandatory immunizations include measles, mumps and rubella, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, poliomyelitis, and haemophilus influenzae type B.
The measure also would require officials at the Department of Public to release annual school-level data on vaccination rates. Coleman-Mitchell published the first school-by-school figures last May, from the 2017-18 year, and in September released a subsequent batch from the 2018-19 year.
The commissioner suggested Wednesday that the timeline for the repeal was too strict. She previously had suggested the religious exemption be removed beginning in October 2021 to give parents time to prepare for the change.
“I would prefer we give our families objecting to vaccination more time to prepare for the new reality in Connecticut, and would appreciate working with the committee to identify a workable solution,” Coleman-Mitchell said.
Lawmakers pledged to include feedback from Wednesday’s public hearing in later versions of the bill.
The hearing drew more than 450 speakers, including medical professionals, politicians, and parents with views on both sides of the issue. People waiting for their turn to testify on the bill stood in lines that wrapped around the Legislative Office Building’s atrium.
James and Kristen Turkosz, a Woodbridge couple, told legislators that the proposal has caused a lot of stress for people who choose not to vaccinate their children. The bill would not force children to be immunized, but it would bar students who claim the religious exemption from enrolling in public and private schools.
“This will turn a lot of lives upside down,” said James Turkosz, a father of two. “Those who don’t comply could be denied an education, segregated from their peers. Others will feel forced to leave the state of Connecticut.”
“Holding hostage the education of many thousands of students, as a purely preventative measure, should be the last resort, not the first resort,” he added. “It requires an overwhelming burden of proof, and I haven’t seen a lot.”
Katherine Matthews, a Bristol resident whose daughter has a compromised immune system, asked legislators to support the bill. While her daughter was able to receive shots, the presence of unvaccinated students at school still increases her risk of developing an illness, she said.
“Because of her condition, it is extremely easy for her to contract communicable diseases. When she contracts an illness, she becomes very sick very quickly and it takes extraordinary measures for her to recover,” Matthews said. “Her treatment often requires long periods of hospitalization and the administration of IV antibiotics and other medication.”
“Unfortunately, this is the life of an immunocompromised person for as long as she gets to live it,” Matthews said. “Life is precisely what is at stake when an immunocompromised person comes into contact with her unvaccinated and under-vaccinated peers.”
Brian Festa, the founder of CT Freedom Alliance, an organization opposed to the proposal, said if passed, the legislation would likely spur a lawsuit.
“You are about to decide on something that is going to have a far-reaching effect on every child and parent in this state who chooses to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs,” he said. “It’s going to open up the floodgates of litigation. … I ask you to please fulfill the duties of your oath and vote ‘no.'”
The bill gives the state’s health commissioner the authority to add vaccines to Connecticut’s mandatory immunization list in the future. That has stirred fears over what other vaccinations might be included.
Matthew Cartter, the state epidemiologist, said public health officials rely on national groups, such as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, to develop a mandatory vaccine registry.
“The commissioner can’t just say, ‘Hey I want to make this vaccine and put it on the list.’ It has to be on the list of vaccines approved by the ACIP,” he said. “We’re very aware that we should not abuse the powers the legislature gives to this department, and we take great responsibility in adding vaccines to that list.”
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