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Conn. Lawmakers Will Not Eliminate Vaccine Religious Exemption This Year

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Nicole Leonard
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Connecticut Public Radio
Democratic representatives Liz Linehan and Matt Ritter told press at the Capitol building Thurs., May 16, that any plans to change the state's childhood vaccination policies will wait until next year.

Legislators said Thursday that they are holding off on changes to the state’s childhood vaccination laws, including the religious exemption.

After holding several public hearings this year on vaccine policy — many of which lasted hours — lawmakers said they want more immunization data and input from the state Department of Health before rolling out any plan that might eliminate the religious exemption, which allows parents to not vaccinate their children for religious reasons.

“I see this as a slowing down,” not a step back, said Rep. Liz Linehan. “A step back indicates that there’s some sort of reason we shouldn’t do this. There continues to be every reason why we need to move forward.”

The department earlier this month released, for the first time, a school-by-school vaccine exemption report for the 2017-2018 year. It showed that while overall vaccination rates at most schools remain high, there were schools that had significant exemption rates, most of them religious.

“I believe when they released the school-by-school data, that was their way of saying we have a real problem in Connecticut,” said House Majority Speaker Rep. Matt Ritter, “but I think they’re going to have to be more forthcoming ultimately with what they think the state of Connecticut would do.”

But in a recent informational hearing on religious exemption policy, Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell emphasized that her agency did not take a position on whether the state should eliminate the religious exemption.

Public health officials are to report back to the General Assembly with policy recommendations and information by Jan. 1, 2020. Ritter says the department is also expected to release school vaccine data for the 2018-2019 year sometime next month.

Legislators want feedback from public health officials on what the state can do to increase vaccination rates, how to handle unvaccinated children currently enrolled in school, and whether the religious exemption should be removed. That said, Ritter said the votes in his chamber were there.

“And so, if you ask me today, I think getting rid of the religious exemption — I know it would have passed (by) the House representatives," Ritter said.

Public committee hearings were held earlier this year on bills that addressed other parts of the state’s vaccination policies, but not specifically religious exemption. That didn’t stop crowds of vaccine-hesitant parents from vocalizing their disapproval of any efforts to restrict the ability to get an exemption.

Ritter said going forward, there needs to be a larger presence of parents and people advocating for vaccines and the importance they play in protecting school-aged children who are immunocompromised and cannot get vaccines for serious medical conditions.

“You need to be vocal, you need to tell your representative and your senator that you are in favor of this, because the only people we’re hearing from are folks who are vaccine-adverse,” he said.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.
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