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Thousands Gather To Protest As State Senate Begins Vaccine Exemption Debate

As Connecticut legislators debated a proposal Tuesday to remove the religious exemption to mandatory vaccination for school-aged children, a large crowd of people opposed to the bill gathered outside the state Capitol in Hartford in protest. 

Cassie Marcantonio brought along her daughter Athena, who’s 7 months old. Marcantonio said she also has an older child who would continue to be able to attend school without being vaccinated, because the law only applies to kids entering school after it’s passed. But were the measure to go through, she said she would leave the state with her family. 

“I think everyone should have the choice to choose what they want to put in their kids’ bodies. And it shouldn’t be mandated for anybody, whether you’re vaccinated or not,” she said. “I don’t say I’m anti-vaccine. I say I’m pro-informed consent, and everyone should be informed about what they want to do with their own body.”

Inside the building, debate got underway in the state Senate chamber shortly after noon. Public Health Committee co-chair Democrat Mary Daugherty Abrams supports the expanded vaccine requirements, particularly after what the state has experienced in the pandemic.

“We have the opportunity to be proactive, to acknowledge the danger and be courageous in protecting our children and our communities,” she said. “After what we have been living through the last year, we deserve that, and certainly, the medically vulnerable among us deserve that.”

Credit Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Cassie Marcantonio of South Windsor sits on the Capitol lawn with her two children during the protest against ending the religious exemption to childhood vaccinations.

Widespread vaccination is needed to prevent transmission of dangerous diseases and to protect people with underlying health problems who cannot safely be vaccinated. But Republican state Sen. Tony Hwang criticized the process Democrats used to bring the bill to the floor. Hwang says lawmakers should have taken more time to listen to vaccine opponents who filled a 24-hour public hearing.

“All you need to do is look outside this building today and look at the gathering of people who have exercised their constitutional right to gather peacefully,” he said.

Among those gathered was Aja Collins, who said her son Giovanni had an allergic reaction to a flu shot when he was a baby.

Now, she wants the choice to pick what she believes is best for him and his siblings. 

“It’s just unfortunate that people are being controlled,” she said. “It’s like 1984 isn’t coming, it’s already here. Your government’s telling you what to do, what you can’t do, they’re making medical decisions on your behalf.”

Angelica Espada was holding a sign that said she stands in her religious beliefs.

Credit Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Angelica Espada of Southington says she protested to preserve her right to make choices for herself and for her children.

“I know it’s already written in God’s book, when I’m supposed to go out,” Espada said. “So, I’m going to live my life according to that belief. And the belief that it’s my body and my choice. The only thing I’m fearing today, tomorrow, yesterday, forever, is God.”

Federal officials say that the country has the safest vaccine supply in its history and that the various COVID-19 vaccines in use have proved to be overwhelmingly safe. 

The measure to eliminate the religious exemption for vaccines for children not yet old enough to be in the public school system has already passed the state House. It’s now before the Senate. If it passes, Gov. Ned Lamont has said he will sign it into law.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.
Matt Dwyer is a producer for Where We Live and a reporter and midday host for Connecticut Public's news department.
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