BRIDGEPORT, CT — Officials from the Connecticut Department of Public Health joined federal and local officials Wednesday at the Southwest Community Health Center to talk about the importance of getting vaccinated during National Immunization Awareness Month.
However, they declined to weigh in on the debate over whether to eliminate Connecticut’s religious exemption to the public school vaccine requirement.
Michael Bolduc, vaccine coordinator at the Department of Public Health, said the school-level data they released in May indicates that the number of children getting immunized has gone down and the number of exemptions has gone up. The school-level data for the 2018-19 school year has yet to be released, but the revised data for 2017-18 showed that 109 schools had kindergartens or seventh grades with immunization rates below the 95% standard for measles, mumps, and rubella, including five schools with rates under 80%.
“We are concerned,” Bolduc said. “We’ve seen members of the legislature voice their concern as well.”
Av Harris, communications director for the Department of Public Health, said vaccines are extremely effective and the more people who can get immunized, “the better for public health.”
But will the department support the elimination of the religious exemption?
That’s “not in the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Health,” Harris said.
He defined it as a “philosophical, societal question” that lawmakers need to answer.
“The ball is in the court of the legislators,” Harris said.
He said it’s not for the Department of Public Health to say whether there should be a religious exemption. He said the governor has said he would sign a bill repealing the religious exemption if lawmakers send him one.
Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Wednesday that the department’s support for eliminating the religious exemption is not a prerequisite for lawmakers to move forward with its elimination.
However, he’s still waiting on the department’s response to questions he asked in June about how to improve vaccination rates in certain schools and how to protect children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
The event comes just days after five Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell to tell her she should not offer an opinion about eliminating the religious exemption for vaccinations.
“We believe that it is wholly inappropriate for the legislators to be seeking your opinion regarding the elimination of the religious exemption in Connecticut,” Republicans wrote. “That is a question of constitutional and civil rights law. It is not the charge of your agency to offer opinions on civil rights issues; the state has other agencies that are responsible for those matters.”
Democratic lawmakers wrote Coleman-Mitchell in June asking her to take a position on the controversial issue they decided not to address during the legislative session.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the school-level vaccine data should be made available and Coleman-Mitchell should offer her opinion about getting rid of the religious exemption.
Looney said they expect the department to release the data and that Coleman-Mitchell will eventually weigh in.
“We also think that it’s important that the commissioner of public health weigh in on this issue and the threat to herd immunity that’s created by the current situation in terms of exemptions,” Looney said.
He said health commissioners in other states like Maine, where lawmakers repealed the religious exemption option this year, have weighed in on the matter.
Looney said there’s no deadline to respond, however, the 2019-20 school year is starting soon and parents have a right to know how well-vaccinated their child’s school is or isn’t.
“We need to hear from her on that,” he said. “She should have opined by now.”
Coleman-Mitchell acknowledged receipt of the letter July 18 and said the department “takes very seriously the questions you asked. It is our full intent to provide substantive, well-researched replies to each of your queries in time for you to make any legislative determinations as to whether our state statutes need adjusting to achieve the best public health results in Connecticut.
Officials with various medical organizations who attended Wednesday’s event believe Connecticut should eliminate its religious exemption.
Dr. Jody L. Terranova, a vaccine advocate for the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (CT-AAP), said the number one goal for the organization nationally is to advocate for the removal of all non-medical exemptions to vaccines.
She said there is a concern about what will happen with the number of medical exemptions if the religious exemption is eliminated. She said they saw an increase in medical exemptions in California following the elimination of the philosophical exemption.
“There may need to be some sort of board that reviews medical exemptions,” Terranova said.
Dr. Claudia Gruss, president of the Connecticut State Medical Society, said the science is irrefutable when it comes to vaccines, but they need to continually look at policies allowing exemptions and the reasons for the requests.
Dr. Stacy Taylor, who represents the American Academy of Family Physicians, said her organization is against religious exemptions to vaccinations.
“There has to be a balance between protecting the public health and treating the individual,” Taylor said.
She said there is no religion that formally opposes vaccinations.
“Education is the key on an individual basis, doctor-to-patient,” Gruss said. “I think when we explain the science behind vaccines the fact that they do save lives is a strong influence when we’re dealing with the overall picture of the misinformation that is available right now on the Internet.”