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Connecticut Leaders Pledge To Eliminate Religious Vaccine Exemption

Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell announces her support for repealing the state's religious vaccine exemption, Mon., Sept. 16, 2019.

Gov. Ned Lamont and other state leaders promised Monday they would back efforts to eliminate the state’s religious exemption for mandatory childhood vaccinations in order to preserve immunization levels and prevent disease outbreaks.

“You know, sometimes legislatures like to wait until the emergency and then act,” Lamont said. “And that’s not the way you deal with public safety.”

Legislators and state officials have debated amongst themselves for months on the issue as nearby states like New York and Maine passed their own laws getting rid of non-medical exemptions. Meanwhile, parents who oppose mandatory vaccines have vehemently vocalized their disapproval of changes like this.

“I know there are many who sincerely believe that the religious exemption should not be repealed and vaccine rates by schools should not be published,” said DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said. “I sympathize, but I must follow the science that has been proven for more than 50 years and have saved millions of lives in our country.”

Coleman-Mitchell recommended that the religious exemption be eliminated by Oct. 1, 2021.

There have been mixed messages in recent weeks from the governor’s office and the state Department of Public Health on exemptions and the release of school-level vaccination data. But Lamont and Coleman-Mitchell appeared to be on the same page Monday.

“Many in third-world countries are still dying from such diseases that we as a nation, with the science, eradicated,” Coleman-Mitchell said. “Now measles has begun to breach our healthy communities and we cannot allow it.”

The state would have to pass legislation that repeals existing law, which says that children must be immunized in order to attend school unless they obtain a religious or medical exemption.

A recent report showed that while Connecticut’s overall vaccination rate for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella remains high among kindergarteners, there has been a slight decline. School-by-school data released earlier this year identified about 100 schools where vaccinate rates were below recommended levels.

Meanwhile, religious exemptions are increasing — the number jumped 25 percent from the 2017 to the 2018 school year, marking the largest single-year increase in a decade, according to the report.

As legislative, religious and health care leaders gathered in the governor’s office for the announcement Monday, parents who are against vaccines and deny their efficacy crowded in the halls of the Capitol building with signs that read “Made Up Crisis.” 

Credit Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Megan Belval, of Avon, protested against state leaders' announcement that they want to repeal the state's religious vaccine exemption for school-aged children, Mon., Sept. 16, 2019.

“This is horrible that our legislators, who work for us, are getting away with this,” said Megan Belval, of Avon. “We are mothers and we know our children, and we know what is right for the health of our children.”

But supporters of the elimination like House Majority Leader Matt Ritter said what’s right is guaranteeing a safe place for kids to attend school, especially children who are susceptible to diseases because of medical conditions.

He warned his colleagues that getting a bill passed in the next legislative session would not be easy, but worth it.

“Some very vocal people out there. They will criticize you, they will file complaints about you, they will say all kinds of things about you,” he said, “but you got to summon the courage to do what’s right by the public health of the vast, vast majority of people in Connecticut.”

Public health officials said they intend to release a second report on school-by-school vaccination and exemption data in October and are prepared to testify and advocate for vaccines in the next legislative session.

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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