Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter and Rep. Liz Linehan (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Lawmakers who favor the elimination of the religious exemption for public school vaccinations said they need more information from the Public Health department to move forward, so they aren’t planning to submit legislation this year.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter said he knows they had the votes in the House, but there are questions about what it would mean for children currently enrolled in school. They also want more direction from the Department of Public Health about what they need to boost immunization rates among school-aged children.

“I believed when they released the school data that was their way of saying we have a real problem in Connecticut,” Ritter said referring to the state Department of Public Health. “But they need to be more forthcoming with what they think the state of Connecticut needs to do.”

Data released by the Department of Public Health for the 2017-2018 school year identified 109 schools that had measles immunization rates below the recommended rate of 95% among kindergarteners and seventh graders. Current year data will be released after June 1 and Ritter said he expects the immunization rates to be even lower than they were last year.

“I know it would have passed the House of Representatives,” Ritter said. But he added that he also understands concerns about how the state would handle, for example, families with a 17-year-old child who was nearly done with high school and who had not been immunized, versus families whose children weren’t yet in school.

They want more information before moving forward with a vote. The decision follows a hearing where at least 100 people signed up to speak against removing the religious exemption. Lawmakers also heard from Attorney General William Tong, whose office wrote an opinion stating that lawmakers are well within their right to remove the religious exemption if they feel there is a threat to public health.

There have been three confirmed cases of measles in Connecticut this year, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there are nine measles outbreaks — defined as three or more cases — ongoing in the US.

Some of the questions they want answered are the following:

• What statutory authority does the Department need to increase vaccinations rates in schools?

• How should the legislature handle unvaccinated children who are currently enrolled in schools to protect children who cannot be vaccinated due to medical conditions such as immune system disorders and/or risk of allergic reactions?

• Should the religious exemption be removed from statute, or is there an alternative that will similarly increase vaccination rates in under-vaccinated schools?”

“We want DPH to clearly articulate their needs so we can ensure all school children are protected from vaccine-preventable diseases and our vaccine rates increase,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said.

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said there are a lot of political realities that make ending the religious exemption very difficult and “if people don’t come out and support us we can’t just do the right thing.”

While the vast majority of testimony Monday 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.

Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said the decision not to more forward with a bill this year is an opportunity to get more information.

“The data showed us the problem, but it didn’t necessarily show us the way,” Linehan said.

While Ritter maintained they had the votes in the House, there have been questions about the Senate. He said he believes the Senate had the votes, and also that there were a few Republican votes in favor as well.

“This data will help us find solutions that will benefit the public health of children and families across our state,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “Vaccinating your children protects them and others against serious and preventable diseases. We must embrace our responsibility to do what we can to ensure that our schools are healthy learning environments for all children.”

Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said they will review the request for information “and take the time needed to deliver an informed response as soon as possible.”

“Vaccination is an essential pillar of our national public health strategy to protect us all from dangerous diseases such as measles,” Coleman-Mitchell added. “Overall, our immunization rate for vaccine-preventable diseases is strong in Connecticut. As recent data show, however, we do have pockets of vulnerability within our state and that is a public health concern. Collectively considering all options to increase the rate of vaccination among our children is a desirable public health strategy.”

California, Mississippi, and West Virginia have eliminated their religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccine mandates. New York and Oregon are considering it. A bill ending the exemption has passed the Maine House and Senate and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

According to an Office of Legislative Research report, the bill in Maine specifies that students with Individual Education Plans as of Sept. 1, 2021, who have exercised a religious exemption prior to that date, are still entitled to special education and related services. It does not address students who receive regular education services.

California’s law also has a provision addressing education for students who are entitled to special education and related services.

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