Christine Stuart/ ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato (Christine Stuart/ ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD — Parents of an unvaccinated child who are protesting the release of school-level vaccination data hired a state representative to argue their case in court and succeeded Monday in getting a judge to delay ruling on the states motion to dismiss.

Kristen and Brian Festa are seeking a court order to stop the state Department of Public Health from continuing to release data on the immunization rates in Connecticut schools.

They had been representing themselves in the case, but have now hired Bristol state Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato to represent them.

In court Monday, a judge gave Pavalock-D’Amato and the Festas 30 days to respond to the state’s motion, which says the Festas have not followed the administrative steps they’re required to follow before suing the state, and that the state has the legal authority to release the data they’re contesting. Deadlines for both sides to submit documentation were set for late August.

The Festas 7-year-old son is a student at Meliora Academy in Meriden, a school where 18.5 percent of the students claimed religious exemptions from vaccinations during the 2017-18 school year.

On May 3, the public health department released school-level data for the first time, including the percentage of children in kindergarten and seventh grade in each school who were vaccinated against measles and other diseases as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The DPH also included the percentage of children in any grade who claimed an immunization exemption, which is based on what the schools report to the state.

The Festas claim in their suit that after the data release, “hateful and vitriolic statements regarding non-vaccinated students and parents began appearing on the internet,” but that there was nothing specifically directed to them.

But Pavalock-D’Amato said that the Festas, since filing their lawsuit, have begun to receive hateful messages through social media. She said she could not elaborate on the nature of the messages they’ve received.

“[Brian Festa] is my constituent, he’s now my client, and we think the Department [of Public Health] violated their own regulations by publishing the information, and [publishing the data] doesn’t serve any rational purpose,” Pavalock-D’Amato said after the brief hearing Monday. “We haven’t had any incidents in Connecticut with some of the diseases that these vaccinations prevent, so I think it’s just creating fear.”

Data on the 2018-19 school year has not been released yet.

In response to CTNewsJunkie’s Freedom of Information request filed on June 20th for the 2018-19 school-level data, the Department of Public Health said “It may take a significant amount of time to respond to your request, but we will update you on progress being made to provide you with the information you are seeking.”

Back in May, DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said the goal of sharing the data “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-preventable diseases.”

Pavalock-D’Amato requested in court that the judge bar the state from releasing new data while the case is pending, and order it to remove vaccination data from its website. But until the state’s motion to dismiss is resolved there can be no action on the underlying case, the judge said.

Assistant Attorney General Darren Cunningham, representing DPH, said there are no plans to publish new data in the next 30 days, but “there is just no chance that they would pull the information down” voluntarily.

He said after the hearing that the state believes the Festas have no standing in the case because they could not have been specifically harmed by the release of the data.

“At no time did the information released by the department name the Festas son or otherwise indicate his exemption status,” Cunningham said. “There was no way to identify the complainant from what the department released.”

Pavalock-D’Amato said she believes that the religious exemption is the reason so many people have responded with hatred to the vaccination rates. She said if the data involved medical exemptions, there would be less controversy.

“At the end of the day I think it is a parent’s choice, it’s up to that parent whether to get their kids vaccinated. I don’t think they should be harassed whether they do or don’t. It’s a private matter,” she said. “If their kids are vaccinated, I don’t understand where the hatred is coming from because their kids would be fine.”

Filings from the state in the case say the commissioner decided to release the data as part of the department’s statutorily-required efforts to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

“The Commissioner released this vaccination data as a direct result of recent measles outbreaks – including one in nearby New York City – and a decline in vaccination rates in Connecticut,” Cunningham’s July 11 motion says.