State leg­is­la­ture de­fers ac­tion on vac­cine ex­emp­tions

The News-Times - - NEWS - By Jenna Car­lesso

Leg­is­la­tors who in re­cent weeks had ac­cel­er­ated ef­forts to re­peal Con­necti­cut’s re­li­gious ex­emp­tion on manda­tory im­mu­niza­tions re­versed them­selves Thurs­day, aban­don­ing their quest amid con­cerns about what to do with un­vac­ci­nated chil­dren who are al­ready en­rolled in school.

The change would not have forced chil­dren to be im­mu­nized, but it would have pro­hib­ited kids who are not vac­ci­nated on re­li­gious grounds from en­rolling in the state’s pub­lic schools. A stick­ing point in the de­bate was whether chil­dren al­ready at­tend­ing school should be al­lowed to re­turn, or if the ban should only ap­ply to those who had not yet en­rolled.

“A lot of peo­ple were strug­gling. What do you do with a 17-year-old kid who’s a ju­nior in high school? Th­ese are re­ally hard things,” said House Ma­jor­ity Leader Matthew Rit­ter, D-Hart­ford. “I don’t think the de­bate is so much about the prob­lem. Ev­ery­one now iden­ti­fies there’s a prob­lem in Con­necti­cut. The ques­tion is what do you do about th­ese very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.”

Leg­is­la­tors also want more in­put from the state Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health. DPH Com­mis­sioner Renee Cole­man-Mitchell has not taken a po­si­tion on whether the Gen­eral Assem­bly should re­move the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion.

Cole­man-Mitchell must weigh in on what statu­tory au­thor­ity is needed to boost vac­ci­na­tion rates in schools, what to do about chil­dren al­ready en­rolled in school, and whether law­mak­ers should wipe out the ex­emp­tion or pursue other ac­tion, Rit­ter said.

“They are go­ing to have to be more forth­com­ing about what they think the state of Con­necti­cut should do,” he said. “I think a lot of peo­ple said, ‘It would be nice to have DPH, as the med­i­cal ex­perts for the state, speak a lit­tle more on that.'”

In a pre­pared state­ment Thurs­day, Cole­man-Mitchell said she will re­view the Leg­is­la­ture’s re­quest and re­spond “as soon as pos­si­ble.”

“Over­all, our im­mu­niza­tion rate for vac­cine-pre­ventable dis­eases is strong in Con­necti­cut. As re­cent data show, how­ever, we do have pockets of vul­ner­a­bil­ity within our state and that is a pub­lic health con­cern,” she said. “Col­lec­tively con­sid­er­ing all op­tions to in­crease the rate of vac­ci­na­tion among our chil­dren is a de­sir­able pub­lic health strat­egy.”

Ear­lier this week, hun­dreds flooded a hear­ing room and over­flow spa­ces at the Leg­isla­tive Of­fice Build­ing to urge the Gen­eral Assem­bly not to move ahead with dis­man­tling the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion.

They called the last-minute push un­fair and threat­ened to vote against politi­cians who sup­ported the re­peal.

Law­mak­ers orig­i­nally had planned to in­tro­duce a bill within a year that would elim­i­nate the re­li­gious waivers, but has­tened their ef­fort af­ter re­view­ing school-byschool vac­ci­na­tion data re­leased by Con­necti­cut’s pub­lic health depart­ment.

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