Vaccine Religious Exemption Debate

CT Senate Passes Bill to Remove Religious Exemptions for Child Vaccinations

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The Connecticut Senate has passed a bill that would remove the religious exemption for childhood vaccinations.

The Senate vote was 22-14.

The controversial bill drew huge crowds to the Capitol on Tuesday. People lined Capitol Avenue all the way down to the Legislative Office Building, holding up signs that say "Parents call the shots," "My body, my kids, my choice," and "Coercion is not consent."

They oppose the move to remove the religious exemption clause for child vaccinations.

Proponents of the bill argue that a highly contagious disease like measles could overwhelm a school with a low herd immunity rate and adversely affect those children who can't receive a vaccine for medical reasons.

"All we're doing is closing a loophole for nonmedical exemption," said Sen. Bob Duff, Senate majority leader. "People are abusing quote unquote religious exemptions for non-religious reasons only because they don't believe in health and science."

Duff said the bill will grandfather in students attending K-12 with non-medical exemptions. Those not yet enrolled in school wouldn't be able to enroll unless they have had their vaccinations for things like measles, mumps and rubella. The only exemption allowed would be for medical reasons.

After at least three years of controversy and public protests, the state House of Representatives voted on a bill that will remove the use of the religious exemption to childhood vaccinations for children if they wish to enroll in school.

Senators began to debate at noon and voted around 9 p.m. The bill will now go to Gov. Ned Lamont's desk. He has said he will sign it.

"It is a protection first and foremost of the large number of students who are immuno-suppressed and immuno-compromised who cannot safely go to school unless they can count on the herd immunity that's created by having the vast majority of their classmates safely vaccinated," said Sen. Martin Looney, Senate president pro tempore.

"I'm very disappointed that the majority Democrats didn't listen to middle class Connecticut families," Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly said.

Kelly called the bill a radical idea pushed by the progressive left, calling it a bad bill and poor policy.

"We believe in individuals. We believe that families, mothers and fathers, know how to take care of their children. The majority Democrats believe that government knows best," Kelly said.

While the Senate debated, thousands continued to protest outside, promising to bring this to court.

"It has devastating impact on families, and they're only voting for the best interest of a pharmaceutical company and not public health," LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice CT said.

The bill previously passed in the House with a vote of 90 to 53.

Both Democrats and Republicans referenced a list from the Department of Public Health. It shows more than 100 schools that are out of compliance and don't meet the 95% herd immunity threshold.

“There’s as many as 100 schools at any given time with vaccination rates below the community immunity threshold. Each of these schools is becoming a potential vector for a disease outbreak,” said Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat who co-chairs the public health committee. 

“How many children were religious exemptions, how many were medical exemptions, how many were noncompliant? Nobody could get the answers," said Rep. Anne Dauphinais, (R) Killingly, Plainfield.

Senators in Connecticut will vote on removing religious exemptions for child vaccinations on Tuesday.

During the 16-hour House debate, there was a lot of discussion about the number of children claiming a religious exemption and the remainder of students were non-compliant.

Some legislators said there's at least 7,500 students claiming the religious exemption and at least 20,000 non-compliant.

Removing religious exemptions for child vaccinations has drawn massive crowds to the state Capitol in protest and tomorrow, the Connecticut Senate will vote on it after the bill passed in the House last week with a vote of 90 to 53.

NBC Connecticut reached out to top school districts on the list with the highest number of non-compliant students and found out there are far more non-compliant students than those with a religious exemption.

Here are the schools' most recent data.

In Hartford, Burr School was listed as 42.6% noncompliant on the Dept. of Public Health list. At this time, the school dropped to 20% noncompliant with have two medical exemptions, one religious and 69 noncompliant students, 27 of which are remote learners.

Sand School in Hartford was listed as 40% noncompliant. It has no medical exemptions, two religious and one student still noncompliant, who is remote.

Kinsella School in Hartford was listed as 30.8% noncompliant. It has no medical exemptions, five religious and 25 noncompliant, 19 of which are remote.

Laurel School in Bloomfield was listed as 45.1% noncompliant. It has one medical exemption, five religious and 23 noncompliant students, including 11 remote learners.

Museum Academy in the CREC district was listed as 47% noncompliant. It has 1.5% medical exemptions, 3% religious and 12.9% noncompliant.

The district said that list that DPH has is just a snapshot of the beginning of the year and the school nurses spend months getting everyone up to speed. This year, many of the students remained remote as well.

Opponents of the bill say there is no public emergency or reason to remove the exemption.

"There is no emergency, the data from the Department of Public Health is flawed. There’s only 1.4% of children in the State of Connecticut that even use the exemption. There are 20,000 children that are noncompliant, that just haven’t turned in their paperwork. The state is doing nothing to address that problem," said Brian Festa, of Bristol.

NBC Connecticut spoke with senators from both sides of the aisle ahead of the vote.

“You’re concerned about a major outbreak because of those few children? Well, look, the reality is the vaccines have been victims of their own success. There have been two generations who have gone by who have not seen the ugly faces of these disease," said (D) Vice Chair of the Public Health Committee Sen. Saud Anwar. 

“Public health is more critical in some situations and we have to look at the broader good, not for a few weeks, not for one month, for many many years to come," Anwar added.

Sen. Anwar recognizes there are far more children that are noncompliant compared to those with religious exemptions, but still believes the state should remove the religious exemption.

“We have a society where people look at everything as their choice, their personal choice and we have to respect that because that’s patient’s autonomy. When a patient’s autonomy is going to result in a collective danger to others, that’s when we have to have a public health making,” said Anwar.

“I’m not sure what the impetus is in terms of a health perspective," said (R) Deputy Senate Republican Leader Sen. Paul Formica. “I think there’s got to be a conversation that honors that religious right and honors a mom’s choice for her children and I think works to educates those that are not compliant and bring them into the vaccine fold if they’re willing.”

Sen. Formica went on to say, "let’s get the kids who are non-compliant. Let’s take a year or two and focus on that and see what the vaccination rate in Connecticut climbs to when we’re able to get all of those non-compliant kids vaccinated.”

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