Lawmakers and parents packed a session at the Legislative Office Building Monday to discuss the future of the state's current religious exemptions available for vaccines.
Connecticut is one of 20 states with a statutory religious exemption for vaccines, meaning parents can claim religion as a reason to keep their kids unvaccinated. Medical experts say those exemptions have led to lower immunization rates in Connecticut and across the country.
“We now have more measles cases in the United States than we’ve had in 25 years,” State Epidemiologist Matthew Carter testified.
Democrats called a hearing on a topic for which no bill has actually been submitted.
The head of the Public Health Committee says Monday’s information session was called in reaction to the outbreak of measles over the border in New York and recent data released by the Connecticut Department of Public Health showing the immunization rates in schools across our state.
Immunization Exemption Rates by School
Data released by the State Department of Public Health shows the percentage of the student body currently exempt from immunizations for either medical or religious reasons by school. Click on a school to find the percentage breakdown.
Data from schools with less than 30 students were not provided.
Data: Connecticut State Department of Public Health
Panicked parents filled the Legislative Office Building in protest.
“Our religious practices aren’t actually harming anyone,” said Bryn Chandler of South Windsor.
“They’re trying to claim a made-up crises in order to push forward an emergency bill that we haven’t even seen the language of yet,” LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice Connecticut.
Recently released data from the Connecticut Department of Public Health shows 100 schools in the state have vaccination rates below federal guidelines, although some school districts disputed the data.
“The current situation today in Connecticut primes us for epidemics that are preventable,” said Dr. Linda Niccolai, an epidemiology professor at the Yale School of Public Health. “People who are not immunizing their kids are creating pockets of very vulnerable populations where epidemics can take hold and spread and it really puts everybody at risk.”
“It’s been proven over and over and over again that vaccines are very safe. These disease are not,” added Jillian Wood, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“It’s very hard for me to reject all of that in order to conclude that people should be able to choose whether or not they can put others at risk,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat from Westport who chairs the Public Health Committee. “Your religious beliefs or other beliefs are only so good as they don’t put others at risk.”
Some worry that some parents are hijacking the religious exemption because of their personal fears about the safety of vaccines.
“If you have a religious a true religious issue with vaccines I think that’s one thing. There are too many people are using the religious exemption and it’s really more a philosophical exemption and that’s just not right with us,” said Wood.
Earlier this session, the Committee on Children held a hearing to discuss requiring parents to get a licensed clergy member’s signature for a religious vaccine exemption. It was moved to the education committee.
Rep. Steinberg said a bill to eliminate the religious exemption will likely be brought up in the Senate soon, but could not say whether testimony of Monday’s hearing would be factored into the language.
“We’re not a constitution state. We’re violating people’s rights,” said Rev. Ernestine Holloway, on the prospect of it passing.