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Hearing On Religious Vaccine Exemption Draws Hundreds To Testify

Hundreds of people packed into the Legislative Office Building in Hartford Wednesday ahead of a public hearing on a bill that would change the state’s childhood vaccinations laws.

Connecticut children can attend public school by either complying with required vaccinations or by obtaining an exemption from vaccination based on religious or medical reasons. A proposed bill would eliminate the religious exemption. 

“The intention of the bill is all about preserving the system that has been shown to minimize, if not eradicate, highly infectious disease that used to plague our state, and our country, and the planet only a couple generations ago,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat who represents Westport.

“All we’re seeking to do at this point is to reduce the number of people who have chosen not to vaccinate their kids for reasons that are other than medical.”

It’s one of the most closely watched debates this legislative session. Supporters say a law like this would limit the rising number of children who are going unvaccinated as well as strengthen the greater public health against disease outbreaks.

But those who spoke against the bill say the legislation is a governmental overreach that infringes on religious rights. Brian Festa, co-founder of the Connecticut Freedom Alliance coalition, called the legislation an attack on religious beliefs and bodily autonomy.

“We have a saying that the state power stops at my skin, so we do not believe the state has any right to force us to have any kind of foreign substance or foreign object injected into us, into our bodies,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope. Once you disallow a religious exemption for this, what other area of society are you going to say, ‘You’re not allowed to practice your religion.’”

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Credit Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Public Radio
Brian Festa, co-founder of Connecticut Freedom Alliance, leads a rally outside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford in opposition to a bill that would eliminate the state's religious vaccine exemption for children, Wed., Feb. 19, 2020.

Festa, who later spoke in front of a large crowd protesting the bill outside the Legislative Office Building, is also an attorney who sued the state Department of Public Health last year over publicly released school-by-school vaccine exemption data.

The courts ultimately dismissed the case, and DPH released a second set of data several weeks later.

Public health officials in their testimony Wednesday referenced that data, which showed that in 134 schools in the 2018-19 year, less than 95% of kindergartners got vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that at least 95% of students be vaccinated for infectious diseases in order to achieve herd immunity, a protection level that significantly reduces the risk of disease outbreak within a community.

DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said a continuous decline in the overall statewide immunization rate, as well as pockets of unvaccinated children in communities, poses a safety threat, especially to “medically fragile children.”

“Some children have conditions that affect their immunity, such as illnesses that require chemotherapy. These children cannot be safely vaccinated, and, at the same time, they are less able to fight off illness when they are infected,” she said. “They depend on community immunity for their health and their lives.”

The bill, H.B. 5044, would allow only medical vaccine exemptions, which must be issued by a physician, physician assistant or advance practice nurse for a qualifying medical condition.

A new advisory committee within DPH would be created to oversee the process of medical exemption regulations and rules, ensuring that medical providers follow state policy when issuing exemptions.

According to the current version of the bill, school-aged children would have to comply with the modified state vaccination law by the first day of the 2020-21 school year. However, Coleman-Mitchell said legislators should consider a longer phase-in of any changes to give families more time to adjust.

Hundreds of people submitted written testimony on the proposed legislation. As of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, nearly 480 people were scheduled to speak at the hearing. More continued to sign up through the afternoon. 

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Credit Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Public Radio
Members of the state Public Health Committee listen to experts and residents testify at a public hearing on a proposed bill that would eliminate the state's religious vaccine exemption for children, Wed., Feb. 19, 2020.

People against mandatory vaccines have said this bill would prevent their unvaccinated children from attending public school and limit other affordable education options. Parents like Ann Marie Gianni said they would consider moving out of state should the law take effect.

Gianni’s family moved back to Connecticut after living in California for a decade. California repealed all non-medical vaccine exemptions in 2016.

“Our kids could not go to school there, so we had to leave, because we wanted our children in school,” she said. “What are my children going to do? We’re going to be forced to move again.”

Parents also claimed that vaccines are unsafe for their children and have caused them harm, even as global studies point to the high efficacy rate and safety of vaccines. These studies are upheld by major health agencies like the CDC, the World Health Organization and most other national medical associations.

But parents held up signs Wednesday that read, “Can’t force it if death is a side effect,” and “Vaccines can cause injury.”

Dr. Linda Niccolai, professor of epidemiology in microbial disease and director of the Connecticut Emerging Infections Program at Yale School of Public Health, said those statements deviate from scientific fact.

“The science is so robust, it’s just so vast, that it’s complicated to explain. It takes students in public health years to learn how to do and understand the research behind vaccine safety, so it doesn’t fit on a sign,” she said. “There’s no medical device, drug, biologic -- nothing in this country is more extensively tested for safety than vaccines.”

“It really boils down to, you kind of believe in science and the scientific method, or you don’t,” Niccolai said.

Steinberg was confident that the bill would be voted out of committee and move on for consideration by the General Assembly -- something that legislators have failed to do in past years -- but didn’t say how many of his legislative colleagues would support the bill in House and Senate votes.

Rep. Anne Dauphinais, a Republican who represents Killingly and Plainfield, said her mind was already made up.

“There’s nothing I will vote for that will take a parent’s ability to make medical choices for their children away,” Dauphinais said. “They are their children -- they’re not the children of the state or our government, and the government and the state do not make those choices for our children, nor should they.” 

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Credit Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Public Radio
Amy Pisani, a Connecticut resident and executive director of the Vaccinate Your Family organization, advocates for vaccines and speaks about her support for tighter state vaccination laws at a news conference, Wed., Feb. 19, 2020.

But Amy Pisani, a Connecticut resident and executive director of Vaccinate Your Family, a pro-vaccine educational and activist organization, said laws like this need to be passed so that no more children die from infectious diseases nationwide.

“Many people come to Vaccinate Your Family because they’ve actually lost their children to these diseases that people are constantly saying no longer exist,” she said, “and they do exist and they do kill children today in this country.”

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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