Last February, in the early weeks of Connecticut’s legislative session, lawmakers intent on erasing the state’s religious exemption from mandatory vaccinations quickly rolled out a draft of their proposal, called a public hearing and voted the bill out of committee with a goal of making it one of the first to arrive on the House floor.
The session was suspended a short time later as coronavirus saturated the state. But proponents of the measure say it will again be a priority as they prepare for the legislature to reconvene on Jan. 6.
This time, however, the effort could be complicated by skepticism surrounding the newly developed COVID-19 vaccine. The coronavirus shot is not on the state’s list of vaccines that children must receive before attending school. In fact, drug makers have not yet approved a COVID-19 immunization for children. Moderna, whose vaccine could be distributed as early as this month, said it would soon begin testing the shot in children, with a clinical trial of 3,000 people aged 12 to 17 planned for this winter. Pfizer started testing its COVID-19 immunization in children as young as 12 in October.
But critics worry that federal and state governments will someday make the shot mandatory for school-aged children, heightening fears around removal of the religious exemption.
“We are absolutely certain they will attempt to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine in the future once it becomes approved for use in children,” said Brian Festa, co-founder of the CT Freedom Alliance, a group opposed to repealing the state’s exemption. “We see no reason why they wouldn’t. They perceive this to be the greatest public health threat of our time.”
Depending on how quickly a coronavirus vaccine is authorized for children, Festa said, some people are concerned that lawmakers will amend the bill late in the session to mandate a COVID-19 shot.
“Would they try to make an amendment on the floor? Obviously they reserve the right,” he said. “Our members are very concerned.”
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat from Westport who is co-chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, said he expects fears around the coronavirus vaccine to complicate efforts to roll back the religious exemption.
He and some of his colleagues are planning to launch an information campaign to make clear that a COVID-19 shot will not be part of the proposal.
Still, he said: “I would not necessarily be surprised if some people want to use this as a way to undermine the core intent of the bill. … The same people who are reluctant or who truly are anti-vaccine are out there. And then there’s a whole new set of people who are concerned about a fairly unknown vaccine.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, is encouraging legislators to start with the bill that was voted out of committee last year.
In that version, children already enrolled in school would have been able to continue claiming the religious exemption for the remainder of their education. Only new children entering school or day care after the bill’s passage would be unable to refuse vaccinations on religious grounds. Medical exemptions would still have been permitted but would require a doctor’s approval.
Mandatory childhood immunizations include measles, mumps and rubella, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, poliomyelitis, and haemophilus influenzae type B, an infection that can lead to bacterial meningitis.
The bill did leave the door open for the state’s public health commissioner to add more required vaccines, though officials with the health department have said they tailor their mandates to federal guidelines.
No child would be forced to receive a vaccine, but children whose families refuse for religious reasons would no longer be allowed to enroll in school.
Looney said the pandemic has made the proposal more urgent.
“It should be evident now to anyone about the havoc and danger and tragedy created in society when there is a disease for which there is no vaccine,” he said. “All the more reason to strongly promote the use of vaccines for diseases that we can control by vaccines.”
Proponents of the measure acknowledged that there was deep skepticism about a COVID-19 shot. A poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that about a quarter of U.S. adults were not sure if they wanted to get vaccinated against the disease. Another quarter said they wouldn’t, according to the AP.
A Quinnipiac University poll found that 33% of Americans would be unwilling to get the vaccine.
Looney said, however, that a coronavirus shot won’t immediately be mandatory.
“Only those who are opponents of the bill we had last year and are looking to undermine it may raise COVID-related fears,” he said. “But that’s not a relevant concern.”
Steinberg said lawmakers will revisit some portions of last year’s bill when drafting a new one. For example, the provision allowing children who already are enrolled in school to continue claiming the exemption could be up for debate.
Steinberg pointed to the rise in digital education as a reason it might be easier for some families opposed to vaccines to homeschool their kids.
“I’m not saying we’re going to abandon” allowing children to remain in school, he said. “But I’m also not saying the final arrangement we ended up with last session is necessarily going to be the product we will introduce next year.”
“One could argue not only are people more aware of the value of vaccines, but we also, by dint of necessity, have more experience with homeschooling and online learning,” he added. “We all recognize it’s not the same thing as in-person learning. But maybe we have a little bit less concern about obliging people to go down that path.”
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, questioned the urgency of the proposal, given that many families have opted for remote learning.
“The landscape certainly has changed in terms of what our priorities are this session, and with so many schools shuttered and [children] doing distance learning, I’m not so sure that that should be a priority,” he said. “We have issues with substance abuse, with drug abuse, with domestic violence, and I think those are the areas that the Public Health Committee should be looking at.”
But Democrats appear poised to move forward. House Speaker Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said “the majority of lawmakers” do not support the religious exemption for vaccines currently on the state’s list of mandatory immunizations.
“My suspicion is that when you talk about the measles [vaccine] – I think this has the votes to pass the House,” he said.
Recent changes on the Public Health Committee could also help hasten the process. Reps. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, and David Michel, D-Stamford, who were the only two Democrats to vote against the measure last February, did not get reappointed to the health committee.
Asked why they were not reappointed, Ritter, a key proponent of the bill, said: “I did my very best to give people the committees they wanted to be on. But there are dozens of members of the caucus who were not able to get all the committees they wanted. It’s a tough juggling act.”