christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell speaks Monday at the forum on immunization (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — There was no legislation on the table Monday but a forum on the pros and cons of eliminating the religious exemption for public school immunization requirements was certainly the spotlight issue at the state Legislative Office Building.

The well-attended forum was hastily scheduled after a report was released last Friday showing more than 100 schools across the state had measles immunization rates below recommended levels.

The revised data, based on data from school districts, shows that 109 schools had kindergartens or seventh grades with immunization rates below the 95% standard for measles, mumps, and rubella for the 2017-18 school year, according to the Department of Public Health (DPH).

The original data release showed 116 schools with rates below the standard set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Revised percentages for the number of religious or medical exemptions were updated for 11 schools after districts alerted the DPH about errors in the initial report. The revised data indicates that within the 109 schools with MMR vaccine rates below 95%, there were five schools in which less than 80% of kindergarteners were vaccinated for measles. Among seventh graders, five schools had MMR vaccine rates below 90%.

The vast majority of the students who weren’t immunized had listed religious exemptions as the reason for not being vaccinated. It was noted at the forum that the number listing religious exemptions as their reason for skipping shots has skyrocketed the past few years.

It was suggested by many who spoke at the forum that one thing Connecticut could do immediately is toughen up its requirements on what qualifies as a religious exemption. Currently, it was pointed out, it just takes a parent or guardian checking a box, while in other states, notably New York, a more detailed description is required for those applying for religious exemptions.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said it was his understanding that “as of two months ago there was no (state) recommendation to eliminate the religious exemption. Has the department changed its policy?” Candelora asked DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell.

“The department takes no position whether there should or should not be religious exemptions,” Coleman-Mitchell answered, though she added it was her department’s “statutory duty to protect public health.”

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Second from right, Dr. Matt Cartter, state epidemiologist (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Dr. Matthew Cartter, state epidemiologist, was a bit more definite.

“The more people we vaccinate the more people we are able to protect,” Cartter said.

Cartter and others who testified that legislators and others following the vaccination debate shouldn’t be influenced by the fact that, statewide, Connecticut has a high rate of vaccinations in comparison to other states.

“You can find you have pockets of under-immunized children which have been fueling the outbreaks you’ve seen” in other parts of the country,” Cartter said. “There have been more outbreaks of measles than we’ve seen in 25 years.”

Cartter made specific reference to the ongoing measles outbreak in the Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, New York, affecting Williamsburg and Borough Park. Cases have also been identified in Midwood/Marine Park and Bensonhurst. Most of the cases have occurred in Williamsburg and Borough Park.

The CDC is currently tracking nine ongoing outbreaks in New York, California, Michigan, Maryland, Georgia, and New Jersey.

“Right now maintaining high level of vaccinations is important,” Cartter said. “These discussions are going on in every state in the United States right now.”

To derive the immunization data in Connecticut, schools report to the DPH the total number of students in kindergarten and seventh grade in each school, and then they report the total number of students who had either shown proof of vaccination or claimed an exemption. In Connecticut, exemptions to vaccination can either be for medical reasons as approved by a physician, or for religious reasons as stated by a child’s parent or guardian.

One of the leading opponents to forced vaccinations at Monday’s forum was Leann Ducat, founder of Informed Choice USA, a group that describes itself as a consumer advocacy and education organization.

Ducat was critical of the format of Monday’s forum, considering there wasn’t specific legislation being discussed.

“This is a little fly by night and not indicative of the legislative process,” Ducat said. “There is no piece of legislation that the public could even read before here. That’s not Democratic, not American.”

Ducat further claimed “that there is no data to support that a non vaccinated person is a threat.”

“There is no emergency for the removal of First Amendment rights, including the freedom of religion,” Ducat told legislators.

She and other anti vaccinators said they found it appalling that the legislature, in their opinion, was moving in the direction, in their opinion, of forcing those who didn’t want their kids to be immunized to be homeschooled.

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Some attendees held signs during Monday’s forum (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Measles outbreaks are less likely to occur at schools in which a large majority 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%.

Measles, in particular, is highly contagious.

According to the CDC, Measles is a 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, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”

Further, the CDC reports that infected people “can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears.”

The CDC also says that some of the possible complications from measles include pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain) — two conditions that can lead to hospitalization and death.

Legislation would likely not force children to be immunized. Instead it would prohibit children who are not vaccinated on religious grounds from enrolling in the state’s public schools.

California, Mississippi, and West Virginia have eliminated their religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccine mandates. New York and Oregon are considering it.

Attorney General William Tong has issued an opinion saying lawmakers’ quest to wipe out the exemption in Connecticut does not violate the state or federal constitutions. Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, had asked Tong to weigh in on the issue.

Tong did not take a position on whether the General Assembly should repeal the provision.

“That is a policy decision entrusted exclusively to the judgment of the legislature and the governor,” he said.

Hartford pediatrician Dr. Jody Terranova said legislators considering legislation shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that the overall immunization rate in the state is high.

“Communities with less than 95% (vaccination rates) have a significant risk,” Terranova said. “It just takes one kid travelling somewhere. It spreads quickly.”

Terranova also had a message for the legislators when it comes to listening to those opposed to vaccinations.

“The ‘no’ voices are often the loudest — but they aren’t always right,” Terranova said.

While the vast majority of testimony from the public, outside of professionals in the medical field, were from those in favor of keeping the religious exemption to vaccinations, one man — Steven Erlingheuser — did step up to the mic to testify in favor of getting rid of the exemption.

“There may not be a crisis right now in the state of Connecticut because we have a pretty good record but it’s about minimizing the chance of one in the future,” Erlingheuser said.

Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, thanked Erlingheuser “for your bravery in getting up in from of room who think differently from you.”

The DPH data is available here as MS Excel speadsheets:

Kindergarten 2017-18
Seventh grade 2017-18