HARTFORD, CT — In 2015, in the midst of a measles outbreak in California, Connecticut’s legislature passed a law requiring parents to present an annual notarized statement of their vaccine exemption to schools and day cares.
That law was only passed after a heated debate of whether government was stepping into an area where it didn’t belong — religion. That’s because most of the non-medical reasons parents give for opting out of vaccines are based on religion. Before 2015, parents only had to submit the form once upon entrance to a school or day care.
The debate is about to repeat itself Thursday when the Children’s Committee holds a public hearing on a new bill that would eliminate a school nurse as one of the people approved to sign off on the forms.
Three dozen letters opposed to the bill have been submitted already.
The bill does not seek to eliminate the current religious exemption, but opponents don’t necessarily believe that.
CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 7005: An Act Prohibiting The Acknowledgment Of Parental Statements Concerning Religious Objections To Vaccination By School Nurses And Permitting Members Of The Clergy To Acknowledge Such Statements
The bill seeks “to permit ordained, commissioned and licensed members of the clergy to acknowledge parental statements concerning religious objections to vaccinations required for enrollment in public and nonpublic schools under the jurisdiction of local and regional boards of education, and to prohibit school nurses from acknowledging such statements.”
Currently, Connecticut allows attorneys, judges, family support magistrates, town clerks, justices of the peace, and school nurses to sign the forms.
“I have heard from school nurses across the state that parents are coming to them to sign the religious exemption form, to allow their unvaccinated kids to attend school,” Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said.
Linehan co-chairs the Children’s Committee, which proposed the legislation.
“The nurses see that many of these children are partially vaccinated, many times only one vaccination, the MMR [measles, mumps, rubella vaccine] is omitted from the recommended schedule and these nurses have a concern that the religious exemption is being utilized with no actual religious exemption,” Linehan said.
Connecticut does not require any information aside from the form to prove a person qualifies for a religious exemption.
“They (the nurses) essentially feel they are being asked to lie in some circumstances,” Linehan said. “Additionally some nurses also feel acknowledging the religious exemption is not only not in the purview of a nurse, but it is also counter to their medical training.”
Linehan stressed that the bill “does not eliminate the religious exemption.”
“All the other signatories remain except school nurses, and clergy is added for convenience,” she said.
The legislation has the backing of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents nearly 1,000 pediatricians in Connecticut.
“This legislation will simply remove school nurses from the list of people who can acknowledge that such immunization would be contrary to the religious beliefs of such child or the parents or guardian of such child,” the chapter said in submitted written testimony.
The pediatric group did, however, add: “We believe you should not stop at school nurses, but should eliminate this non-medical exemption totally.”
“One of the ways we accomplish that is by mandating certain vaccines for school entry. The more vaccine exemptions that are allowed, the more at-risk it places other children to devastating disease,” the pediatric chapter testimony continued.
Vaccinations, whether it be for measles or anything else, are universally recognized as the best way to prevent disease.
While the committee may look at the proposed bill as a way of cleaning up language about who handles exemptions, those opposed don’t see it the same way.
“Having a school nurse acknowledge the forms is the best option for parents who don’t want to reveal their private medical decisions since the nurse already gets the exemption forms,” Winifred Harrison, Connecticut Vaccine Rights League president, said in submitted testimony.
Harrison wondered if those pushing the proposed bill have another agenda.
She said it is “more likely this bill is being proposed to put the religious exemption up for discussion with the goal to then eliminate the exemption altogether.”
Harrison went on: “It is reasonable to suspect HB 7005 is yet one more bill in this attack on parental rights, and that the clergy vs. nurse choice is not the driving force behind this bill at all.”
Concurring with that opinion is Health Choice CT (HCCT), a grassroots nonprofit organization whose stated mission is for people to be allowed to make their own informed health decision for their families and themselves.
“It really looks bad for a bill like this that targets such a small number,” said Melissa Sullivan, executive vice president of HCCT.
Sullivan said there are only 1,255 cases of children who have religious exemptions from vaccinations in the state.
“Meanwhile Connecticut already has the highest vaccination rate in the country,” she added.
Just like in 2015 the debate is coming up at a time when measles are back in the news. This time, however, the issue is closer to home as in recent weeks the Department of Public Health has confirmed two adult measles cases in Connecticut.
On the recent measles cases, DPH said investigators have not identified any common links between the first and second cases, although both were probably exposed to measles in early January.
“The single best way to protect yourself and your children from measles is to be vaccinated,” DPH Commissioner Dr. Raul Pino said. “The measles vaccine is safe and effective, and protects both individuals and communities from outbreaks as long as most people are vaccinated.”
The Children’s Committee public hearing on the bill will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday in room 1B of the Legislative Office Building.