Conn. health commissioner calls for repeal of vaccine exemptions

Issue will come up in next legislative session

By Rob Polansky, Susan Raff
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

HARTFORD, Conn. - Health officials, lawmakers and religious leaders made a plea on Monday to repeal certain immunizations exemptions.

Dr. Coleman-Mitchell, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, recommended repealing religious exemptions to vaccines due to an increase in cases of diseases like the measles, which was thought to have been eradicated in the early 2000s.

Democratic lawmakers have been talking about this for a few months and support a repeal of the religious exemption. The governor is now saying this is the right thing to do.

While overall Connecticut has high vaccination rates, there are more than 100 schools were vaccine rates are below government recommendations.

"Sometimes legislators like to wait for the emergency and then act, wait for the bridge to go down, wait for that measles epidemic, and that's not the way you deal with public safety," Governor Ned Lamont said.

Lamont recently overruled his health commissioner who chose not to release the latest school by school vaccination data, now they appear to be on the same page.

"High vaccination rates protect not only vaccinated children but also those who cannot be or have not been vaccinated," Coleman-Mitchell said in a letter to lawmakers.

She called it "herd immunity."

"High vaccination rates at schools are especially important for medically fragile children," she said. "Some children have conditions that affect their immunity, such as illnesses that require chemotherapy."

Coleman-Mitchell noted that those children cannot be vaccinated and can be less able to fight off illnesses.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk expressed his support for eliminating the exemptions.

"When children are not vaccinated it jeopardizes their health and safety, as well as the health of others around them," Duff said. "Rolling back the religious exemption from vaccines is a step in the right direction towards addressing this issue, and I'm pleased that the Department of Health and the commissioner support this measure. Low immunization rates are a serious public health concern and it's critical that we work with health professionals across the state to fight back against misinformation on this topic."

Vaccines draw intense criticism from those using the exemption, some even claim lawmakers have close ties to pharmaceutical companies.

"Let's say we get rid of the religious exemption and some 300 getting vaccinated is going to change what for a company? That's a silly argument," said Rep. Matt Ritter.

Some say this is an intrusion of the government.

"This is horrible, that our legislators who work for us are getting away with this," said Megan Belval of Avon. "It is wrong and you will see, they will be on the wrong side of history. We are mothers and we know our children and we know what is right for our children we don't the need the government to tell us."

Some parents are convinced childhood vaccines cause autism.

"It's so heartbreaking to have a child with autism and it's so easy to say it was the vaccines that did it, even though they have been proved to be completely negative," said Dr. Stacy Taylor.

The plan would be for all children attending public schools to be vaccinated to October 2021 unless there's a medical reason.

Most states have religious or personal belief exemptions.

New York City recently got rid of its exemption after a measles outbreak. Maine also did away with its version this year.

In 2019, the United States has seen the largest increase in the number of measles cases in the last 25 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The CDC said more than 1,241 people in 31 states contracted measles between Jan. 1 and Sept. 12, 2019, including three cases in Connecticut and more than 1,000 in Brooklyn and Rockland County, NY.

Coleman-Mitchell asked that the measure be taken up during the General Assembly's next legislative session.

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