ctnewsjunkie file photo
Supporters of the religious exemption gathered at the Legislative Office Building in May (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The state Department of Public Health on Thursday reported the largest single-year increase in students using religious exemptions to required school vaccinations since it started tracking the information a decade ago.

The DPH reported that religious exemptions to vaccinations increased by 25% between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, from 2% of the total number of students to 2.5% of the total. The department did not report on the number of students using medical exemptions.

The school-by-school data the department uses to track and report the information was not released Thursday, but that data is expected to be released in the next two months.

The statewide rate of kindergarteners receiving the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine also has declined. The department reported that it dropped from 96.5% in 2017-18 to 95.9% in 2018-19. That’s a decrease of 0.6% based on data reported to the agency as of Aug. 13.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell, who had recently declined to release the school-by-school vaccine data, said Connecticut is meeting the overall recommended guideline of making sure 95% of kindergarteners receive the MMR vaccine.

“It does raise concern, however, that this number declined in the 2018-19 school year while religious exemptions for vaccine-preventable diseases overall have increased,” Coleman-Mitchell said. “If parents have any questions about vaccinating their children, they should discuss them with their child’s primary care physician.”

Gov. Ned Lamont overruled Coleman-Mitchell’s decision not to release the school-by-school data Wednesday.

Coleman-Mitchell told reporters Wednesday afternoon that there was no need to release the school-by-school data because there were no active measles cases in Connecticut. But on Thursday she was on the same page as Lamont.

“The decline in vaccination rates and the increase in the number of religious exemptions validates the need to release immunization rates by county and by school for the 2018-19 school year by October 21, 2019,” Coleman-Mitchell said Thursday in a press release.

In 2019, the United States has seen the largest increase in the number of measles cases in the last 25 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,215 people in 30 states had contracted measles between January 1 and August 22, including more than 1,000 in the neighboring state of New York. One of Connecticut’s three cases originated from New York.

“The resurgence of measles in the United States is of great public health concern,” Coleman-Mitchell said. “When we released immunization rates by school this past May, my goal was twofold: to better inform parents of the vaccination rates in their children’s schools so they might protect their children; and to encourage higher rates of immunization overall. I know that this is especially important to parents whose children cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.”

State Rep. Liz Linehan, who co-chairs the legislature’s Children’s Committee, said the numbers reported Thursday were “deeply concerning.”

She said the release of the school-level data is even more important because it will show if previous pockets of unvaccinated children are growing larger and affecting more communities.

Linehan said she’s encouraged that commissioner now believes that it’s necessary to release the school-level data.

“I am concerned and alarmed that religious exemptions to vaccinations have increased by 25% and the vaccination rate children are receiving has dropped in Connecticut according to new data from the Department of Public Health,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said “This trend is going in the wrong direction. We must continue to work with health professionals across the state to fight against misinformation from a vocal minority. The health and safety of our children should not be a political football.”