HARTFORD, CT — As measles continues to spread in the United States with cases surpassing 700 this year, the Connecticut Department of Public Health plans to release information on just how many unvaccinated children attend each school in the state.
Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell sent a letter Tuesday to all school superintendents to let them know they will be posting public and private school immunization-related rates on their website by the end of the week.
Coleman-Mitchell said the school-level information is to “increase public awareness of immunization rates in local communities, which may lead to increased engagement and focus on increasing immunization rates to reduce the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Previously, the Department of Public Health said it would not publicly disseminate school-based information or even the number children per town that aren’t vaccinated based on their religious or medical exemptions.
In response to a CTNewsJunkie Freedom of Information request, in February the department said, “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 lack of information prompted House Majority Leader Matt Ritter and Senate President Martin Looney to team up to introduce legislation to make the information available during the next five weeks of the legislative session. Meanwhile, Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who also requested the information, filed an FOIA complaint, which is expected to be heard on May 9.
Ritter said the new development means it won’t be necessary to pass legislation to get the data this year.
Currently, only statewide and county data has been made available.
Lawmakers who support Connecticut’s religious and medical vaccine exemptions have said there’s no cause for concern in Connecticut because enough people are vaccinated.
“Connecticut currently has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country at 98.2 percent, far greater than the 75-86 percent required to achieve herd immunity for mumps, the 80-86 percent required for polio, and the 83-94 percent required for measles. The use of the religious exemption in Connecticut, therefore, poses absolutely no threat to public health or safety,” wrote 44 lawmakers in a letter to Attorney General William Tong earlier this month.
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who supports a religious exemption for vaccines, said the data is likely going to show that Connecticut doesn’t have a problem and isn’t at the same risk for an outbreak as New York. He said the release of the information will likely help calm the emotionally charged issue.
Ritter said he hopes Candelora and the other lawmakers are right, but he believes parents deserve to know how many children in their child’s school are not vaccinated. He said once they know if there are any “hot spots” of unvaccinated children, then they can evaluate the information and come up with a plan for legislation in 2020.
Ritter has not been shy about calling for the elimination of the religious exemption.
Looney said that it’s important to know the statewide rate, but it’s even more important to know if there are any concentrations of unvaccinated children.
Those who support the religious exemption believe disclosure will bring them one step closer to eliminating it.
Looney said if parents make the choice not to vaccinate, then they’ve made a choice to homeschool their child.
“Every constitutional right is subject to reasonable regulation for public health and public safety,” Looney said.
Meanwhile, Tong is expected to issue a legal opinion in May regarding the constitutionality of eliminating the religious exemption.