HARTFORD, CT (UPDATED 4:30 p.m.) — Connecticut schools have one of the highest immunization rates in the country, but according to the state Department of Public Health, 116 public schools reported immunization rates for measles, mumps, and rubella that were below 95% last year.
That included six schools in which less than 80% of the kindergarteners were vaccinated.
The vaccination data, which was for the 2017-18 school year, was released following a series of requests by CTNewsJunkie as well as members of the General Assembly. The state DPH updated its data over the course of the afternoon Friday, including removing from the lists that they originally uploaded all the schools with enrollments of less than 30 students. The DPH’s original data also reported vaccination rates for kindergarteners and seventh graders separately for the same schools in some cases, so the current map with this story corrects for that change as well.
Measles outbreaks, like the nine that are ongoing in New York, California, Michigan, Maryland, Georgia, and New Jersey, are less likely to occur at schools in which a large number of students are immunized to achieve herd immunity.
Herd immunity is described as a vaccination rate high enough to protect unvaccinated children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that number is 95%.
Dr. Jody L. Terranova, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut and a vaccine advocate for the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (CT-AAP), said the data will help the academy reach out to schools with low numbers to see what education they can provide to improve vaccination rates in order to protect students who cannot be vaccinated based on medical conditions. Terranova added that the data may be eye opening for parents whose children have compromised immune systems, because if their school falls below 95% then there is no herd immunity and they face an increased risk of an outbreak.
“We clearly have a false sense of security when using the overall state vaccination rate and can now see areas throughout the state where our residents are vulnerable to preventable diseases,” Terranova said.
Both the CT-AAP and the Connecticut State Medical Society said they were “alarmed by the startling Department of Public Health School Immunization Report” released today.
“The facts don’t lie,” CSMS President Claudia Gruss, MD, said. “We know that immunizations are proven to be safe and effective, they are one of our best lines of defense to protect the public’s health.”
The lowest percentages of Connecticut kindergarteners immunized with the MMR vaccine were at schools in Stamford, Bridgeport, Hartford, and East Hartford last year. At least six schools in those towns had kindergarten immunization rates below 80%.
There were at least 36 schools where the MMR vaccine rate for kindergarteners was under 90%. Those schools were in Groton, Norwich, New Haven, Bloomfield, Hartford, Bridgeport, South Windsor, New Canaan, Waterbury, Redding, Mansfield, Milford, Westport, Canterbury, Stafford, and Stamford.
The DPH also provided vaccination data for seventh graders across the state. Five schools had MMR vaccine rates under 90%, including schools in Norwich, Newtown, New Haven, Hartford, and Killingly.
Seventh-grade immunization rates between 90% and 92% were recorded at schools in Greenwich, Guilford, Stamford, and Bridgeport.
The overall number of schools with MMR vaccine rates under 95% was 116 when both kindergarteners and seventh graders were included, but there are still many unanswered questions about the data released Friday morning.
Why did some schools with low immunization rates report zero exemptions?
Kathy Kudish, head of the Connecticut Department of Health’s Immunization Program, said that children without the required number of doses of vaccines do not necessarily have an exemption on file.
She added that all data was self-reported by the schools, and a handful of schools had reached out Friday following the publication of the data to let the DPH know there may have been errors.
Kudish said the DPH is addressing those issues and will correct the database as the updates come in, with plans to release the updated information in about a week.
She admitted it’s possible that updated information could change the immunization rates at a handful of schools.
The information released included the percentages of children in kindergarten and seventh grade who are vaccinated against measles and other diseases as recommended. The DPH also includes the percentage of children in any grade who have an immunization exemption, which is based on what the schools report to the state.
Democratic legislative leadership in the House and the Senate said the data proves what they feared.
“The immunization level is dangerously low in a significant number of schools and communities, putting the public’s health at risk. This is a matter of grave public health concern,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, who has not been shy about his desire to end the religious exemption for vaccines, said the numbers were “shocking.”
The release of the data provided ammunition for lawmakers who are advocating to end the religious exemption for vaccinations for students who want to attend public schools in the face of a vocal group of parents who have been lobbying hard to keep it.
“Public health is always top priority, and when there are signs it is being compromised, it can’t be ignored,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said.
LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice USA, said she believes some of the information DPH released is “inaccurate.”
“Recently, Matt Ritter clearly said that releasing this data will identify hot spots likely for infection and that ‘hopefully releasing this data will increase immunization rates’. The only way I can see for that to happen is by harassment, peer pressure and pressure on those towns/districts to create an unfavorable environment to exemption users,” Ducat said.
She also argued the state violated its own law by releasing the data.
“Sec. 10-204a-4(c) states that ‘all immunization information collected by the department shall be confidential.’ So we believe that DPH is violating the law and we are looking into possible legal action,” Ducat said.
This is the first time the department has released the information about the immunization rates for various vaccines on a school by school basis. Schools with low immunization rates also have higher rates of religious and medical exemptions. The corrected data provided by the DPH does not include schools with fewer than 30 students and it does not include childcare centers or preschools.
DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell, who recently moved back to Connecticut from the state of Washington — which recently dealt with a measles outbreak — wrote to to school superintendents earlier this week to let them know she was releasing the information.
“While Connecticut’s immunization rate for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination of kindergarteners remained high last year at 96.5 percent the number of fully immunized students, upon Kindergarten and seventh Grade entry, is trending lower,” Coleman-Mitchell wrote. “A disease outbreak is less likely to occur at schools where high numbers of students are immunized.”
Coleman-Mitchell said Friday that the “goal in releasing immunization data for each school is to increase public awareness of vaccination rates in local communities. Hopefully, this will lead to more engagement and focus on increasing immunization rates to reduce the risk of vaccine-
At a Capitol press conference Friday, Ritter said they had expected a handful of schools to be at risk for an outbreak, but they didn’t expect as many schools to report immunization rates under 95%.
“The magnitude of this problem is why you’ve seen the comments you’ve seen,” Ritter said. “Nobody saw this coming.”
Ritter said he expects the public to start asking lawmakers what they plan to do about it.
But Ritter said they want to wait until Attorney General William Tong releases his opinion on the constitutionality of the religious exemption and then decide where to go from there.
“We have literally dozens of schools that are not one point below but double digits below the CDC recommended level,” Ritter said.