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Fate of Vaccine Lawsuit Against Connecticut Health Department Rests With Judge

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public Radio
Superior Court in Hartford

Brian and Kristen Festa, of Bristol, sat beside their attorney in Hartford Superior Court Monday as they fought to advance their lawsuit against the state Department of Public Health over the release of school vaccination data.

Monday’s hearing centered around the state’s motion to dismiss the entire case. 

The Festas claim that making school vaccination data public violates medical privacy rights and causes harm to families who do not vaccinate. Their lawsuit seeks to block any future release of data.

Darren Cunningham, of the state Attorney General’s Office, argued the Festas’ claims had no standing and therefore the case should be tossed.

“The school data doesn’t include any names whatsoever,” Cunningham said before Judge Susan Cobb. “There’s no way to identify (students).”

The data being challenged are included in a May DPH report that lists the percentages of students with vaccinations and with medical or religious exemptions at every school in Connecticut. Schools with 30 or fewer students were not included.

State officials have said that they released the information, for the first time, in reaction to nationwide outbreaks of measles.

They said the report helped identify which schools had weaker immunization levels due to higher rates of religious or medical exemptions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools have at least a 95 percent vaccination level to achieve herd immunity, or community protection against a disease.

“Herd immunity does not maintain itself,” said Av Harris, DPH spokesman. “We have to be constantly vigilant to make sure new generations of children and parents understand the importance of continuously vaccinating your children.”

But attorney Cara Pavalock-D’Amato pushed back on those reasons in court Monday on behalf of her clients, who were supported by a crowd of parents who oppose mandatory vaccinations. The hearing was moved twice to larger court rooms in order to accommodate the number of people attending.

The state report did not identify any individual students, but D’Amato argued that the data release still violated medical privacy rights because state laws stipulate that vaccination information remain confidential.

Cunningham countered that the state law protects personal information — the May report only released aggregate data information.

But D’Amato said with the data publically available, it has become easier for other parents and children to figure out which students have religious or medical exemptions, regardless of medical privacy laws.

“You’re talking about kids who will ask each other, ‘do you have your shots’ and parents who will try to figure out who has shots and who doesn’t,” she said. “Eventually we’re targeting people, and kids don’t know those (privacy) laws.”

State and public health officials have said that parents have the right to the vaccination data in order to make decisions on where to send their children to school, especially parents of children with medical exemptions who rely on herd immunity levels.

But D’Amato said the data release was less about educating and informing the public, and more about scaring parents into vaccinating their children.  

“That’s trying to bully them and scare them into doing something that they’ve already made an educated decision on,” she said. “Now we may not all agree with that decision, but that’s not for me to judge what they do for their children.”

Cobb is expected to rule on the state’s motion to dismiss within 180 days. Meanwhile, Harris said DPH still intends to release another school-by-school vaccination report for the 2018-2019 year on October 21.

He said overall vaccination rates across the state remain strong, but new evidence showing a slight decline in measles vaccinations and rising numbers of exemptions is just one reason why the school vaccination reports should continue.

“It is not trending in the right direction and so that raises a level of concern that there’s a risk to public health and that’s directly correlated to the rise at the same time of religious exemptions,” Harris 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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