State legislature defers action on vaccine exemptions
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.