Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Kevin Barry, president of First Freedoms, and Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Removing school nurses and adding clergy as authorized signers of a form to exempt children from vaccines was the subject of a well attended public hearing Thursday.

In addition to a jammed packed hearing room more than 200 pieces of testimony were submitted on the bill and the sometimes emotional hearing opened with a warning from the committee co-chairwoman about what type of behavior was acceptable.

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.

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The bill does not seek to eliminate the current religious exemption, but opponents don’t necessarily believe that.

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’m not sure why there are so many people worried about losing the religious exemption,” Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, said. He said while the bill removes the school nurse as a signer there are still plenty of others, including judges, clerks, attorneys, clergy, “lots of options” for others to sign the exemption forms.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Rep. Liz Linehan and Sen. Mary Abrams co-chair the Childrens Committee (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

Earlier this week, Rep Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said the reason the bill was being suggested was that she had heard from school nurses that they felt it wasn’t their role to be the ones who sign off on religious exemptions.

But Kevin Barry, president of First Freedoms, which advertises itself as a nonprofit that works to protect religious exemptions from state interference, said there is more going on.
“Parents who have religious objections to vaccination have valid concerns about legislative creep,” Barry told the committee.

He said he and others are worried that a law that starts off simply removing a school nurse as a signer will later be amended to totally eliminate exemptions from vaccinations.
He even challenged committee members to, “meet me here next year and see if I’m right.”

“Just last week in New Jersey, a bill which passed out of the Assembly committee in 2018 restricting the religious exemption was amended to totally remove the exemption,” Barry said.

That bill has not been signed into law, but is still winding its way through the legislative process.

“There is currently a bill in New York to totally remove the religious exemption to vaccination. It stands to reason that the pharmaceutical lobby will try to capture all three markets in the tri-state area during this legislative session: 3.5 million people in Connecticut, 20 million people in New York, and 9 million people in New Jersey,” Barry 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.”

Lori Flaherty, of the Connecticut Association of School Nurses, said it should be the primary care provider who signs the form.

She said she has some religious exemptions in her school but the decision by the parent has already been made by the time she receives the form. There’s no ability to have a conversation about vaccination. She said that conversation should be with the primary care provider who knows that patient.

“We’re there to witness a signature. We are not there to make judgment,” she said.

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.

Melissa Sullivan, executive vice president of 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, encouraged the committee to take on other issues.

“There’s no crisis here, we’re good,” said Sullivan. “This isn’t broke, we don’t need to fix it.”

She further argued that the nurses are the best people to be handling the records.

“They are the keepers of all things medical for our children,” Sullivan said.

The debate is coming up at a time when measles are back in the news. 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.”