State urged to re­peal vac­ci­na­tion ex­emp­tions

The Day - - FRONT PAGE - By JENNA CAR­LESSO

Con­necti­cut’s re­li­gious ex­emp­tion from vac­ci­nat­ing school chil­dren should be re­pealed and state Health Com­mis­sioner Renee Cole­man-Mitchell must be free to weigh in on the is­sue, the head of an ed­u­ca­tion re­form ad­vo­cacy group said Mon­day.

Amy Dow­ell, the direc­tor of Democrats for Ed­u­ca­tion Re­form CT, a lo­cal chap­ter of a na­tional ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cacy group, is the lat­est to weigh in on the hot-but­ton topic of rolling back Con­necti­cut’s re­li­gious ex­emp­tion from the re­quire­ment that all pub­lic school stu­dents be vac­ci­nated.

Late last month, Repub­li­cans wrote a letter to the health com­mis­sioner urg­ing her not to take a po­si­tion on the con­tentious is­sue. Their plea came af­ter Demo­cratic lead­ers in the House and Se­nate re­peat­edly asked Cole­man-Mitchell to of­fer an opin­ion.

“Re­li­gious ex­emp­tions are certainly an is­sue that has per­co­lated all over the coun­try. Every­body has recognized in the science com­mu­nity that this isn’t a way to pro­tect stu­dents,” Dow­ell said in an in­ter­view. “We felt it was ap­pro­pri­ate for us to go on the record and say we want the best for our chil­dren. This is not a safe cir­cum­stance for Con­necti­cut stu­dents.”

She stopped short of de­mand­ing that Cole­man-Mitchell take a po­si­tion on the mat­ter, but said the health chief should be free to weigh in.

“I don’t think she should be re­stricted from say­ing any­thing,” Dow­ell said.

Five Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, all of whom are mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture’s con­ser­va­tive cau­cus, sent a letter to Cole­man-Mitchell on July 30 ask­ing that she re­frain from of­fer­ing an opin­ion on the push to re­peal the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion.

State Reps. Anne Dauphi­nais, Mike France, Craig Fish­bein, Rick Hayes and David Wil­son said it was “wholly in­ap­pro­pri­ate” for Democrats to seek Cole­man-Mitchell’s in­put, and they called the is­sue “a ques­tion of constituti­onal and civil rights law” — not pub­lic health.

Democrats and the ed­u­ca­tion re­form ad­vo­cacy group dis­agreed. While they have pledged to pur­sue a re­peal re­gard­less of Cole­man-Mitchell’s re­sponse, Demo­cratic lead­ers said the com­mis­sioner’s opin­ion is im­por­tant.

“It just seems highly ap­pro­pri­ate to have an opin­ion and analysis from that agency as a pre­cur­sor to adopt­ing leg­is­la­tion,” Se­nate Pro Tem­pore Martin Looney told The CT Mir­ror last month. “We’re not aware of any state that has adopted a ban on the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion that was op­posed in do­ing so by its De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health. In most cases, they sup­ported it.”

Cole­man-Mitchell so far has not is­sued a for­mal re­sponse to leg­is­la­tors. A spokesman for her de­part­ment said last week that the is­sue is out­side the agency’s purview, though he later added that the com­mis­sioner is work­ing on her own re­ply to law­mak­ers.

Dow­ell is the most re­cent of­fi­cial to press for a re­peal of the ex­emp­tion. Last week, health rep­re­sen­ta­tives who gath­ered in Bridge­port to pro­mote vac­cines — in­clud­ing mem­bers of the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics’ Con­necti­cut chap­ter and the Con­necti­cut Academy of Fam­ily Physi­cians — also called for the pro­vi­sion to be erased.

Pine Point School in Ston­ing­ton, Wild­wood Chris­tian School in Nor­wich and North Ston­ing­ton Chris­tian Academy are among the schools with re­li­gious ex­emp­tions.

De­bate over the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion has brewed for years, but in­ten­si­fied in May af­ter the health de­part­ment made pub­lic for the first time its school-by-school as­sess­ment of child im­mu­niza­tion rates. The data from 2017-18 showed 102 schools where fewer than 95 per­cent of kin­der­garten stu­dents were vac­ci­nated against measles, mumps and rubella — the thresh­old rec­om­mended by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

Health of­fi­cials, who had planned on re­leas­ing the 201819 school year vac­ci­na­tion data, now say the is­sue is on hold. A Bris­tol cou­ple is su­ing the state to block the dis­tri­bu­tion of those fig­ures.

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