A first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is given to a senior citizen at a clinic at St. Bernard Church in Vernon Thursday, Jan. 28. A one-day clinic was set up by Priority Urgent Care of Ellington in partnership with the town of Vernon in an effort to reach out to the community to make it easier for seniors age 75 and over to get the vaccine. They dispensed 100 doses. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org
Lawmakers are again considering a bill that would repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory vaccinations. But this year’s measure will look a little different from last year’s proposal. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Lawmakers are again considering a bill that would repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory vaccinations. But this year’s measure will look a little different from last year’s proposal. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Last year, when proponents of the effort to erase Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations laid out their proposal, they recommended allowing all children currently enrolled in school to continue claiming the exemption. Only new kids entering the school system were prohibited from refusing the vaccines on religious grounds.

This year, authors of the bill say, that recommendation will change.

In the latest version, only children in seventh grade or higher would be permitted to continue claiming the religious exemption. Anyone in grades six or under would no longer be eligible, as would anyone entering the school system in the future.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a co-chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, said the growing number of young children claiming the exemption has concerned him and others working on the bill. It is also more difficult for older children, who have been enrolled in school for years and have deeper ties to the classroom, to stop attending in person, he said.

The bill does not force children to be immunized, but it does bar children who are not vaccinated because of a religious or personal belief from attending public or private school.

“We’ve looked at the data, and there seems to be less of an issue with under-vaccinated schools when you get to” seventh grade, he said. “The problem seems to be at the earliest grades.”

From the 2017-18 school year to 2018-19, the number of Connecticut schools where less than 95% of kindergarten students were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella increased by 31%, a trend driven by the rise in religious exemptions to mandatory immunizations.

State data show 134 schools at which less than 95% of kindergarteners received a measles vaccination in 2018-19 – the most recent data available – up from 102 schools the year prior. The 95% threshold is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain herd immunity. The data also show an increase of 25% in the number of students claiming the religious exemption.

Steinberg acknowledged that the change in this year’s bill could spark additional opposition, but he said he would seek feedback from public health committee members and others in the coming weeks. A virtual public hearing on the bill is being scheduled for Feb. 16.

“It will change some people’s opinions,” he said of the newest version. “There are some people who are not comfortable with” allowing any children to continue claiming the religious exemption, and “there are some people who really insist on including all children [in the exemption], even those who haven’t been born yet.”

“We’re going to feel out our committee on it,” he added. “And we’re going to be very open to feedback.”

For families that would no longer be allowed to enroll their children in school, Steinberg pointed to the rise in virtual learning over the last year.

“It certainly is something that, based upon the [methods of] learning during the past year, gives us more perspective,” he said.

The other components of the bill are expected to remain largely unchanged from the 2020 proposal, which passed out of the public health committee but never came up for a vote in the House or Senate because of the pandemic.

Along with repealing the religious exemption, the 2020 bill also would have required the public health commissioner to annually release school-by-school vaccination rates, called for the formation of a board to review Connecticut’s vaccine program and advise the health commissioner, and urged doctors to carefully consider autoimmune disorders or a family history of them when granting medical exemptions.

Mandatory childhood vaccinations include measles, mumps and rubella, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, poliomyelitis, and haemophilus influenzae type B. The 2020 bill left the door open for the state health commissioner to add more required vaccines, though officials with the health department have said they tailor their mandates to federal guidelines.

Brian Festa, co-founder of CT Freedom Alliance, a group strongly opposed to the measure, said members of his organization are firmly against the proposal, regardless of whether some children claiming the religious exemption are allowed to remain in school.

“We would not support it, even though for many of our members, it would help them” to allow children already enrolled to stay in school, he said. “I don’t make decisions based on whether it’s going to personally benefit me or any one person. It’s about doing what’s best for all.”

Steinberg said that if passed, the bill likely wouldn’t go into effect until September 2022. A draft of the measure is expected to be released on Friday.

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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