HARTFORD, CT — When immunization rates fall below a certain percentage, vulnerable populations such as babies under six months or individuals with certain medical conditions are at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Is your community at a higher risk of infection based on declining immunizations? On Feb. 7, CTNewsJunkie requested information from the state Department of Public Health regarding the number of unvaccinated children in each Connecticut town. The DPH denied the request on March 5.
At the moment the requested information is not being made available to the public, based on Connecticut General Statute 19a-25:
“Under Conn. Gen. Stat. sec. 19a-25 (see attached), the Department cannot publish, make available or disseminate reports of the findings of studies of morbidity and mortality (such as a school or school district’s immunization rates) or any other documents that include identifiable health data or any item, collection, or grouping of health data that makes the individual or organization supplying it or described in it identifiable (e.g. in the case of the annual immunization survey, a specific school),” the department said March 5. “In addition, the same statute precludes the Department from producing reports that do not contain identifiable health data in response to specific requests since doing so would result in linking the report to an identifiable individual or organization.”
The DPH confirmed that it already collects immunization information from schools, but department officials said they only make that information available on a statewide or county-level basis and without identifiable information.
According to data from the 2017-18 school year, Hartford county had the highest number of preschoolers declining vaccinations, including the flu shot. Of the 6,811 pre-schoolers in Hartford county, 548 children cited exemptions to vaccinations. Of those, 359 involved religious exemptions and were only used to skip the flu shot.
The immunization rate jumped slightly among children entering kindergarten. That same year, of the 9,971 kindergarteners in Hartford county, only 169 claimed exemptions. Among seventh graders the number of Hartford county students who cited either a religious or medical exemption dropped to 117 out of 11,420 students in 136 schools.
In Fairfield county, 500 out of 5,388 preschoolers filed exemptions and 297 were religious exemptions and only for the flu shot. Of the 11,279 kindergarten students in Fairfield county, only 286 filed exemptions. In seventh grade, 212 of the 12,585 students that year filed exemptions. Most of the exemptions at all three grade levels were on religious grounds.
Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said parents should have access to more information about immunization rates.
She said it’s unlikely that town-by-town data would be able to identify a family and should be publicly available.
“If I’m a family with an immunocompromised child, then I would like to know how much danger they’re in if we decide to live in a specific community,” Linehan said.
She cited clusters of measles outbreaks that have been reported on the West Coast. Measles is a preventable disease that was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, but is still common overseas and has made a comeback in the US since vaccination rates began dropping.
According to the CDC, the US experienced 23 measles outbreaks in 2014 for a total of 667 cases. The largest was an outbreak of 383 cases that occurred primarily among unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio.
There have been at least two measles cases in Connecticut this year. As of Feb. 28, there have been 206 cases of measles reported in 11 states including Connecticut, according to the CDC.
On Thursday, the New York Times reported that one unvaccinated student with measles in Brooklyn, N.Y. infected 21 other students with the virus — many of whom also were unvaccinated.
According to the CDC, measles is “a highly contagious virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. It can spread to others through coughing and sneezing. Also, measles virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace where the infected person coughed or sneezed. If other people breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface, then touch their eyes, noses, or mouths, they can become infected. Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”
Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said last year that he requested school-level data about immunization rates and was denied access.
He said if someone doesn’t want to vaccinate their child, then they shouldn’t be allowed to enroll them in public school.
“I do not want us to become the Pacific Northeast,” Elliott said.
There was a bill introduced in 2017 that would have provided the general public with access to unidentifiable, aggregate data regarding immunization rates for each public and private school in Connecticut.
Former Department of Public Health Commissioner Raul Pino testified in 2017 that the state was providing insufficient information on student immunization rates, because the public did not have access to the level of detail necessary to measure any individual school’s vulnerability to vaccine-preventable diseases.
Aside from medical exemptions to vaccinations, any parent in Connecticut can cite a religious exemption to vaccinating their child as long as they have the form signed by an attorney, judge, family support magistrate, town clerk, justice of the peace, or school nurse.
The Children’s Committee is debating a bill, HB 7005, that would eliminate school nurses from the list of individuals able to sign off on the form. School nurses have testified that by the time they are asked to sign the form a parent has already made up their mind and there’s no opportunity to have a conversation about the importance of vaccinations. The deadline for the committee to approve the bill is Tuesday.
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
However, that’s one of a few bills this year dealing with vaccinations.
Unlike other states Connecticut has no legislation seeking to tighten vaccine exemptions. However, those who are staunchly against vaccinations say they’re concerned about the “legislative creep” of the Children’s Committee bill. They fear the bill will be amended on the floor to tighten or eliminate the religious exemption.
Elliott said there’s not enough support for such a measure within the Democratic caucus, which is divided on the issue, so leadership is not taking a position.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, has declined to comment on whether more information should be publicly available.
Kevin Barry, who is president of a group that advertises itself as a nonprofit that works to protect religious exemptions from state interference, said there is more going on than just removing school nurses from the list of officials who can approve an exemption.
“Parents who have religious objections to vaccination have valid concerns about legislative creep,” Barry told the Children’s Committee on Feb. 7.
Barry said he was 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.