For many Americans, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine has inspired feelings of relief, excitement, and pride. The vaccine both protects against a rampant disease and represents the beginning of a return to normalcy following a devastating 13 months of isolation, working from home, and Zoom birthday parties. While excitement regarding the long-awaited vaccine is shared by millions of Americans, cries of opposition and anti-vaccine rhetoric have resurfaced along with it.
Connecticut legislators are especially familiar with this anti-vaccination sentiment. Indeed, they are considering, for the second time in the past year, two bills which would eliminate the religious exemption from the state’s immunization requirement for school children.
Since 1959 Connecticut has required that children attending school receive vaccines against certain diseases including measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox before enrollment. When required immunizations were signed into law, the legislature established two distinct types of exemptions. A medical exemption can be claimed by students with health conditions that bar them from receiving certain vaccines. The other exemption allows students to opt out of receiving vaccines if the family’s religious views conflict with receiving certain vaccines. Historically, religious exemptions have not posed a threat to public safety in Connecticut. Now, however, the number of students claiming these exemptions has grown significantly, causing great concern.
During the 2017-18 school year 7,042 children across all grade levels claimed the religious exemption. By the 2018-19 school year the number jumped to 7,782, and 8,328 students claimed the exemption in the 2019-20 school year. In light of the rise in vaccine hesitation since the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, it is likely that this number will continue to rise in the following school year if the religious exemption remains. With fewer children receiving vaccinations, the risk of schools and their surrounding communities experiencing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases greatly increases. It is time for Connecticut to prioritize general public health and do away with the religious exemptions from immunizations in school-aged children.
During this 2021 legislative session, the Connecticut House voted in favor of House Bill 6423 and the State Senate is poised to vote on the issue today. This bill would effectively eliminate the option for parents to claim a religious exemption from immunization requirements, strengthen the medical exemption, and provide aid to families who cannot access required vaccines. The law would take effect in September of 2022 and allow children who have passed seventh grade and have already received religious exemptions to continue to attend school. The bill has passed through the Public Health Committee, been endorsed by the Appropriations Committee, and is backed by both Attorney Gender William Tong and Governor Ned Lamont. Although these measures have received overwhelming support from Democratic legislators, medical professionals, and many parents, there has also been fierce backlash.
Parents and members of religious groups testified against the bill through both written testimony and a 24-hour virtual public hearing, held earlier this year. They claimed that requiring vaccinations violates religious freedom and that the state would be wrongly restricting unvaccinated children from access to public education. As proponents of the bill have pointed out, however, eliminating the religious exemption does not force children to get vaccinated and violate their religion. Families could still choose not to vaccinate their children. These kids would simply not be allowed to endanger others in school settings where diseases spread rapidly. These laws would legitimately prioritize the health and safety of the general public over individual interests which place others in danger.
Additionally, a school nurse raised concerns on behalf of the Association of School Nurses of Connecticut that parents with philosophical objections to vaccinations have taken advantage of the religious exemption option. Under the current laws, a parent or guardian can receive approval for a religious exemption with recognition from a school nurse, notary public or town clerk. There is no requirement that a religious exemption claim be approved or endorsement by a religious leader. If H.B. No. 6423 becomes law, and exemptions from required immunizations become harder to obtain, those who need an exemption for medical reasons will be protected, and entire school populations will be at lower risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Until Connecticut adopts this bill, communities will struggle to reach herd immunity and protect immunocompromised individuals. In the case of the coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci has estimated that herd immunity will require between 70 and 90 percent of the population to be fully vaccinated. As Dr. Jody Terranova, a pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Hospital and member of the Vaccine Advisory Council’s Science Subcommittee, noted, children make up 20 to 25 percent of the Connecticut population. Therefore, if children are not vaccinated, efforts to reach herd immunity will be undermined.
While the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are not yet available to those under 16, medical professionals support COVID-19 vaccinations for children when they do become available. The current bill to eliminate the religious exemption does not require the COVID-19 vaccine to be administered before the 2022 school year, but it will ensure we are not placing children and communities at risk for other vaccine-preventable diseases. Eliminating the religious exemption would ensure that if future highly contagious airborne illnesses like coronavirus affect the United States again, only those students who have medical reasons for not receiving a vaccine would be allowed to do so.
The time has come for the Connecticut legislature to act to remove religious exemptions. As we inch closer to resuming more normal lives, I urge the Connecticut General Assembly to pass this legislation and improve public health for all of our residents. Connecticut must require children to get their vaccinations so that they can protect each other, their parents, our teachers, and our entire state.
Lindsey Mattson is a student of Public Policy and Law at Trinity College.