HARTFORD, CT — After months of saying it wasn’t her department’s role to weigh in on whether Connecticut should repeal the religious exemptions for vaccines, Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell is expected to join Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday to offer her support for repeal.
Sources with knowledge of the plans for Monday’s Capitol press conference said Coleman-Mitchell will join Lamont and several lawmakers in calling for a repeal of the religious exemption to required school immunizations.
In August, officials from the DPH said it’s not their place to tell the legislature whether to eliminate the religious exemption.
“That’s truly a legislative matter,” Coleman-Mitchell said of the religious exemption.
That’s “not in the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Health,” DPH spokesman Av Harris has 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.
“I am not able, nor should I weigh in on anything that’s public legislation that comes about as a result of any of the work that we do. That is not in the purview of my department,” Coleman-Mitchell told reporters in August.
The reversal in the department’s stance comes after Lamont had to overrule Coleman-Mitchell’s decision not to release the school-by-school immunization data for 2018-19. That information is expected to be released Oct. 21, 2019.
Coleman-Mitchell didn’t believe it was her role to even weigh in on whether the legislature should continue to make the school-by-school data publicly available.
“I would not say anything about what the legislature should or should not do,” Coleman-Mitchell told reporters last month.
She made those statements one day before data was made available indicating that the number of parents utilizing religious exemptions in Connecticut had increased.
Preliminary statewide data shows 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%. Those numbers were only for kindergarteners and only for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, according to the department. The department did not report the total number of students claiming medical exemptions when it reported the data on Aug. 29.
Michael Bolduc, vaccine coordinator at the Department of Public Health, has said that 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. That data showed that more than 100 schools had immunization rates below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended rate of 95%.
The CDC says 95% is the herd immunity level needed to prevent the spread of measles.
Harris has said it’s not for the Department of Public Health to say whether there should be a religious exemption. He said the governor has indicated his willingness to sign a bill repealing the religious exemption if lawmakers send him one.
On Friday, Harris referred all questions to the governor’s office.
The press conference Monday signals that the pro-vaccine argument seems to be gaining momentum in the legislature, but those who support the religious exemption aren’t giving up.
A Bristol couple is fighting the release of the school-by-school data in court. The court has yet to rule on the state’s motion to dismiss.