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Proposed Elimination Of Conn. Religious Vaccine Exemption Draws Nearly 2,000 To Virtual Hearing

Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
Residents and advocates against legislation that would eliminate the state’s religious exemption for mandatory vaccines for school-aged children flooded the Legislative Office Building in Hartford last year during a public hearing.";

An overwhelming number of people signed up to testify Tuesday during what was expected to be a contentious public hearing on school vaccination requirements -- so many that lawmakers, by a majority vote, decided to cap the duration of the virtual hearing at 24 hours.

The limit was criticized by several Republican members of the state Public Health Committee, as well as those who testified throughout the day. 

“This 24-hour limit of a public hearing where a majority of nearly 2,000 people who’ve signed up to have their voices heard will not have it. They will be denied,” said Sen. Tony Hwang. “This process, in my mind, is disrespectful and insensitive to the people it personally impacts.”

The high turnout was unsurprising, as previous proposals to eliminate the state’s religious exemption to mandatory vaccines were met with intense opposition from vaccine deniers and people who believe that immunizing children should be at the discretion of parents and guardians, not the state.

That did not stop another effort this year. Democrats have forged ahead with legislation that would end a pathway for families to opt out of immunization due to any religious belief and require most children to be vaccinated in order to attend public or nonpublic school.

The only exemption remaining would be for children who cannot get vaccines due to medical reasons, and a physician or licensed medical professional has to certify that the exemption is for a qualifying condition.

The legislation does include an exception for older students who already have a religious exemption to complete their education without change.

Catherine Ambrose, a resident of Wilton, testified against the proposal and said it infringes on her religious freedoms.

“I cannot imagine the disappointment my son will feel if I have to tell him he will not be able to enroll in camp or school next year, because our religion doesn’t matter to the state,” she said before committee members Tuesday.

Jan White, a resident who also testified, said preventing unvaccinated children from getting an education at school would place an undue burden on families.

“People who cannot afford that option of moving out of state, what quality of their home-school could they possibly afford, and how is the state going to adequately fund home-schooling options?” she asked. “Whole families should be able to stay together in the state. We love the state and we want to continue to send our kids to school.”

Families with religious exemptions overall make up a small percentage of Connecticut’s school population. New state data show that 2.3% of all kindergartners in the 2019-20 school year had this type of exemption, down slightly from the previous year.

However, the data also showed that 1,536 new kindergartners and seventh graders entered school with religious exemptions, an increase from the year before. 

Supporters of the proposed legislation said they’re concerned about a rise in these exemptions over the last several years and how they may contribute to weaker herd immunity, or the level of broad protection against diseases within a specific community or area due to the number of people immunized.

“We have to maintain infection immunity in our community, otherwise those who cannot be vaccinated will suffer dire consequences if exposed,” said Dr. Jack Ross, an infectious disease physician.

Children and adults who may not be able to get vaccinated include those living with HIV, patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, anyone who may have temporary or permanent medical conditions that impair their immune systems.

Ross, who testified Tuesday as president of the Connecticut Infectious Disease Society and a member of the Connecticut State Medical Society, said it’s likely people have forgotten how dangerous and deadly diseases like measles and mumps can be without vaccination.  

“Most of you have not seen, at this point, post-polio patients. Very few of you have seen meningococcemia. You haven’t seen somebody with viral pneumonia due to measles,” he said. “We as a society have become complacent. We do not understand the implications of these diseases and what the devastating side effects of these diseases can be.”

The public hearing is expected to last until the early hours of Wednesday morning. Legislators would have to vote the bill out of committee in order to advance it to the General Assembly.

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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