Both sides ready for battle over repeal of religious exemption for vaccines

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, of Westport, speaks during a news conference at the Morton Government Center, in Bridgeport on Aug. 5 . The news conference was held to announce that Fairfield Count has been selected to participate in the 2019 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

HARTFORD — Parents opposed to repealing the religious exemption for childhood vaccinations say they will be at the state Capitol in large numbers on the opening day of the session Wednesday.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who co-chairs the committee that is expected to introduce the legislation, said Monday that they are working on a draft of the bill and will share it with committee members when it’s finished.

He said the bill would eliminate the religious exemption, which some lawmakers have started to refer to as the “non-medical exemption,” in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Steinberg said they don’t plan to introduce legislation to mandate the HPV vaccine for seventh-graders, even though that is recommended by the CDC.

Steinberg said he expects that the Public Health Committee will vote to have a public hearing because even those without reservations about the bill understand the need for the public to weigh in. He said it takes a lot of time for everyone to express their viewpoint on an issue that has been this controversial, but he promised everyone will “have their three minutes.”

In March 2019, when the measles outbreak in Brooklyn, N.Y., was on everyone’s mind, CTNewsJunkie reported that the state Department of Public Health was sitting on school-level vaccination rate data, but was unable to release the information by statute.

At that point, legislators began advocating for release of the data, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, promised a vote on removing the religious exemption within a year.

In the following months, the DPH released two years of school-level immunization rates, which showed a 25 percent increase in the number of children claiming the religious exemption to the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.

Based on additional interviews over the last several months, parents appear to be using the religious exemption in a variety of circumstances. In some cases, parents say they have opted out of all vaccines. In others, they may have opted out of a portion of the required vaccines. And some parents are vaccinating their children but are making use of the religious exemption because they don’t want to disclose their children’s immunization status to their school districts.

It was also clear from the data that the paperwork for some students had fallen through the cracks at some schools. Specifically, the number of immunized students, added to those who had used exemptions, did not add up to the total number of kindergartners and/or seventh-graders enrolled.

The MMR vaccine comes in two rounds, which are routinely recommended for children ages 12-15 months and again at 4-6 years. One dose of measles vaccine is about 93 percent effective at preventing measles when exposed to the virus. Two doses are about 97 percent effective, according to the CDC.

The data released in May showed that in the 2017-18 school year there were 109 school buildings in Connecticut in which MMR immunizations were below the CDC’s recommended herd immunity rate of 95 percent. In the 2018-19 school year, data for which was released in October, the total had increased to 149.

The overall statewide vaccination rate for MMR dropped from 96.5 percent in 2017-18 to 96.1 percent in 2018-19, based on revised data that the DPH had received from schools.

In an interview earlier this month, Ritter said the release of the data was a turning point for legislators.

“I think the data has been the single most important factor in getting Connecticut politicians to understand the serious nature of this problem,” Ritter said.

He said “you can find out the third-grade reading level at any school in the state. You should be able to know the kindergarten vaccination rate as well.”

Steinberg didn’t want to get into specifics about the legislation before his colleagues had a chance to review it. But he was able to confirm last week that the continued release of the school-by-school immunization data — which he said is important to the governor and the public health commissioner — would be part of the bill repealing the religious exemption.

Steinberg said the committee is focusing on the vaccines that the CDC requires, and is also following the lead of the DPH, which does not require administration of the HPV vaccine.

Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell and Gov. Ned Lamont told reporters in September that they also were supporting the repeal of the religious exemption.

Earlier this week, Archbishop Leonard Blair of the Archdiocese of Hartford and four other bishops and high-ranking officials with the Catholic Conference encouraged the use of vaccines, but stopped short of calling for the repeal of the religious exemption.

“There is no religious teaching against the use of these vaccines for Catholics,” the bishops wrote in an open letter.

But they went on to say that “religious exemptions should be jealously guarded. Any repeal of a religious exemption should be rooted in legitimate, grave, public health concerns.”

House Deputy Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said he had been a member of a bipartisan working group seeking to draft the legislation before the holidays, but he said the group was no longer meeting.

He said it’s an “oversimplification” to say you’re going to get rid of the religious exemption and more kids will get vaccinated.

He said most of the schools that fell below the recommended 95 percent rate for MMR immunizations are schools where the paperwork was not properly registered, or it was not turned in at all. He said that unless there’s some sort of penalty or mandate for schools to collect this data, then the data is not going to be useful.

He said the issue of grandfathering in certain groups of students might work because it doesn’t make sense to throw high school kids out of school.

However, advocates on both sides of the issue are not in favor of grandfathering the current student population.

Brian Festa, a co-founder of a group called CT Freedom Alliance, said there are people with “sincere religious objections” to some vaccines.

He said he knows people who forgo some vaccinations but get others. Festa said that without the religious exemption, they won’t be able to do that and continue to attend school, which is a right granted to children under Connecticut’s constitution.

“It’s a civil rights issue,” Festa said.

Dawn Jolly, another co-founder of CT Freedom Alliance, said they have asked a lot of people to come to the state Capitol on Wednesday and to the public hearing later in February.

Both Jolly and Festa are hoping to get lawmakers to reconsider. They hope to replicate what happened in New Jersey in December, when the state Senate there was unable to find enough votes to repeal that state’s religious exemption.

According to news reports, protests by parents and children opposed to mandatory vaccines were enough to get the issue tabled before a vote. Parents and children were yelling and stomping their feet outside the Senate chamber there when they figured out that they didn’t have the votes.

Connecticut failed to pass legislation last year, and officials who are now pushing for repeal have been cautious about what they’ve said publicly to avoid confrontations with parents who support the religious exemption.

“We announced it several months ago and no one has wavered from the House and Senate leadership to the governor’s office on getting it passed this year,” Ritter said.

He said “hundreds of people are not vaccinating their children anymore — based mostly on misinformation — and that’s a danger to a lot of our residents and we want to end that.”

Emails between employees at the DPH, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information request, show they were concerned about Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who came to Connecticut last March to speak about vaccines.

Kennedy has become a celebrity within the niche of people who oppose vaccinations, and he was supposed to join a panel of medical professionals who support vaccines for a public discussion. But the event was canceled. Instead, Kennedy spoke to a large number of mostly women about how he doesn’t believe vaccines are safe — a position that puts him at odds with members of his own family.

The FOI request revealed that Kathy Kudish, immunization program manager at the DPH, warned a colleague seven days before the forum that they should “limit the ‘anti-vaccine’ presence” and “take no questions from the public.”

“This has the potential to turn into a media and anti-vaccine platform so I’m hopeful that (state Rep. Josh Elliott) will take some steps to ensure that does not happen,” Kudish wrote. “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a loud anti-vaccine spokesperson and turns out huge crowds.”

LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice CT, said that “when supporters of vaccine mandates cannot defend their position, they resort to bullying and censorship. We saw a perfect example of this in Hartford in March 2019.”

“The medical establishment can’t defend vaccine mandates because their science is extraordinarily weak,” Ducat said. “If lawmakers learned how weak their evidence is, they would never consider a vote to remove religious liberty and access to public schools. That’s why they are afraid of a real dialogue.”

She said they “hide behind the curtain of alphabet soup agency recommendations and pharmaceutical company public relations campaigns. Virtually all of the entities which support removal of the religious exemption participate in the revenue stream from vaccines, which is an obvious and enormous conflict of interest.”

Jillian Wood, executive director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Connecticut chapter, has said there’s no way medical professionals were going to convince “true anti-vaccine people their information is wrong. We can only answer questions about scientific truth.”

The spread of misinformation on the internet is credited with causing immunization rates to drop.

Doubts about the MMR vaccine originated with a retracted study published in 1998 that incorrectly suggested a link between the vaccine and symptoms of autism. The study has been widely cited online as the basis for fear of vaccinations.

That is not to suggest that there are no side effects or adverse reactions from vaccinations – the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System was created to track such events and there are parents in Connecticut who believe their children were adversely impacted by vaccines.

Regardless, vaccinations are part of the CDC’s recommended requirements for children to attend both public and private schools. For the most part, Connecticut follows the CDC’s recommendations, but could, in theory, opt not to include a given immunization in the required schedule.

The World Health Organization, in its online training course titled “Vaccine Safety Basics,” provides a chart showing the cycles of a vaccination program. The chart illustrates a vaccine’s impact on public health from inception through eradication. It also includes a period where negative perceptions about the vaccine – based on adverse events – lead to a drop in immunization rates and a resurgence of a disease.

“Nationally, we have seen that religious exemptions increase when that is the only choice and other personal/philosophical exemption choices are removed,” said Dr. Jody L. Terranova, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington who also is the immunization advocate for the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But total non-medical exemptions are still increasing regardless of whether they are religious or personal beliefs.”

Terranova said the increase in use of exemptions can be attributed to a combination of reasons, including:

a lack of experience with and exposure to the diseases that vaccines prevent;

the reach of the internet and social media and the ability of anyone to claim expertise;

perception of risk and overemphasis on vaccine side effects as the visibility of a disease and its effects decrease, and;

a general distrust of the government, physicians, and pharmaceutical companies.Measles is among the most contagious diseases in the world and had been nearly eradicated by an aggressive vaccination program, but it has made a comeback in the U.S. and elsewhere as parents have been deciding not to vaccinate.

The United States, because of its investment in sanitation and vaccination programs, is better equipped than many other countries to handle outbreaks of contagious diseases. But in areas where people are not vaccinated, the disease is extremely dangerous. One student in Brooklyn infected 21 others last year, some of whom were unvaccinated. But the virus – with its four-day incubation period during which people are contagious but not symptomatic — makes it especially easy to spread.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where vaccination rates are low, an ongoing measles outbreak has infected 310,000 people and killed more than 6,000, according to the World Health Organization.

The virus is spread through coughing and sneezing, and can live for up to two hours in an airspace where the infected person coughed or sneezed.

In 2019, there were 1,282 measles cases in 31 states in the United States. The CDC reported that 128 of the people who got measles were hospitalized, and 61 reported having complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis.

Last year in Connecticut there were four confirmed cases of measles and one suspected case. No measles cases have been reported in Connecticut in 2020.

Connecticut Media Group