HARTFORD, CT — Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell doesn’t believe the school-level data on immunizations should be released, but her boss, Gov. Ned Lamont, is overruling her.
“When the school-by-school immunization data has been verified for accuracy, it will be released,” Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, said Wednesday. “The governor believes strongly that this is important information for the public and policymakers to have at their disposal.”
Just an hour earlier, Coleman-Mitchell told two reporters that she didn’t plan to release the school-level data and didn’t want to weigh in on whether the legislature should pass legislation to require its annual release.
“I would have no decision about what the legislature should or should not decide,” Coleman-Mitchell said Wednesday following an unrelated meeting at the Legislative Office Building.
She said she doesn’t want to offer an opinion about whether lawmakers should have school-level data on vaccinations and she already made it crystal clear her department has no desire to get involved in the question of whether lawmakers should eliminate the religious exemption to vaccinations.
“I would not in any way, weigh in on that as any directive for the legislators,” she said.
Some lawmakers were appalled at the 2017-18 school year vaccination data that showed more than 100 schools fell below the 95% vaccination rate for measles, mumps, and rubella. The Centers for Disease Control sets 95% as the threshold for herd immunity for measles.
Senate President Martin Looney, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter called on Coleman-Mitchell for more guidance on how to proceed with improving vaccination rates.
They asked Coleman-Mitchell in June whether they should remove the religious exemption for vaccines and what they can do to protect children with immune system deficiencies. She has yet to respond to their inquiry.
Looney said Wednesday that the commissioner seems to want to “completely bail” on whether there is a public health question at stake, and it seems she is almost “taking the anti-vaxxers point of view.”
Looney said he’s frustrated. “There is vital health data the commissioner is not interested in releasing or gathering,” he said.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said just like parents get to decide to vaccinate their children, they should also have information about the immunization rates at a particular school.
“People deserve to have all the information at their disposal when it comes to their children,” Ritter added.
As public health commissioner, Coleman-Mitchell said she wants immunization rates to be high and currently the statewide rate is 95.9%, “so we’re good right now.” She said there were three cases of measles earlier this year and there are currently no active cases.
The Department of Public Health will release the statewide data and the number of religious exemptions Thursday.
With school starting, she said the intention is to educate parents to get their children vaccinated, but lawmakers were struggling with how to convey that information without having the data.
Coleman-Mitchell said it was a “public health decision” to release the 2017-2018 school-level immunization data.
“Public health commissioners in other states have been leaders in encouraging legislators to take action on religious exemption,” Looney said.
However, Coleman-Mitchell said she doesn’t have an opinion about whether she should take on a more active role to combat the spread of misinformation about the safety of vaccines.
“It wouldn’t be incumbent upon us to release that data by school at this time,” Coleman-Mitchell reiterated Wednesday in an interview with reporters prior to the announcement from the governor’s spokesman.
She said they only reason they released the school-level vaccine data, which included the number of religious and medical exemptions for every school in the state with more than 30 students, was because of the national epidemic at the time.
Coleman-Mitchell said she is releasing the data by county in October and has no intention of doing any sort of internal review of the school-level data.
“If you look at what we already have up there by school, that gives you a snapshot of what the immunization rates are,” Coleman-Mitchell said.
It is unclear when the school-level data will be released.
But there are some who don’t want it released.
“We are stunned the Majority Leader appears to have actually strong-armed the Governor into reversing his public position on this in less than 24 hours. As an officer of the court, Mr. Ritter is well aware that releasing information related to pending litigation is absolutely unethical,” LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice CT, said.
Ducat is referring to the lawsuit Kristen and Brian Festa filed in May seeking to stop the release of the school-level data.
“We strongly urge everyone to reference the heavily sourced letters we provided on May 10th from Drs. Alvin Moss and Chris Shaw, clearly debunking the state’s fabricated interest in this issue. As the DPH Comissioner herself stated on May 13th and again yesterday, there is no threat, there is no emergency, and therefore no reason to continue bullying parents in Connecticut, whose stance on this will not change, no matter what legislation is passed. Our organization receives calls every single day from frantic religious refugees out of New York who are moving here in droves and uprooting their lives over this. Our advice to those families is to rent and definitely register to vote.”
There’s also those who support the release of the data and the elimination of the religious exemption.
Dr. Jody Terranova, a vaccine advocate for the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (CT-AAP), said she would support legislation calling for the annual release of the school-level vaccination data.
In Connecticut in 2017 an estimated 96.5% of kindergarteners received the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.
“We see numbers like this and we are lulled with a false sense of security,” Terranova said. “That’s because the release of the data show us there are pockets of low herd immunity and when an epidemic hits, that’s where it’s going to happen.”
She said officials need the data to see where their educational efforts are lacking and they need to be able to compare these schools over time to see if their efforts are improving the immunization levels. Terranova said she’s confident the legislature will take action to make sure this data is available on an ongoing and annual basis.