Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Based on new data indicating growth in the number of parents using religious exemptions to school vaccination requirements, state officials say they are moving to eliminate the religious exemption as an option starting in 2021.

Gov. Ned Lamont gathered with his Department of Public Health Commissioner, Renee Coleman-Mitchell, as well as legislative, medical, and faith leaders on Monday at the state Capitol to announce their intention to end the exemption.

The announcement — and a letter to legislative leaders from Coleman-Mitchell — came after a period of uncertainty this year regarding state public health policy, highlighted by disagreement over whether to release anonymized school-by-school immunization data for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). After multiple requests from CTNewsJunkie starting in February, the DPH decided to provide the school-level data in May, revealing that less than 95% of the students in more than 100 schools across the state had received the MMR vaccine.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Gov. Ned Lamont (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

At the time, there were three known cases of measles in Connecticut while larger outbreaks were underway in neighboring New York. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, measles is among the most contagious viruses in the world and is spread by coughing and sneezing. Outbreaks are prevented by maintaining a 95% public immunization rate, which is a designation referred to as “herd immunity.” 

The 95% threshold protects not only vaccinated children, but also those who cannot be vaccinated. Schools that achieve herd immunity reduce the risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, rubella, or whooping cough. Children who cannot safely be vaccinated for medical reasons depend upon herd immunity for their health and their lives.

According to the World Health Organization, about 110,000 people died from measles in 2017, most of whom were children under the age of 5 years, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.

In August, Coleman-Mitchell had said she was no longer planning on releasing the school-level data, but after being overruled by Lamont, she showed Monday that she is now supportive of the governor’s public health agenda, including removal of the religious exemption for school vaccinations.

Since then, the state revealed that the number of parents utilizing the religious exemption jumped by 25% from the 2017-18 school year to 2018-19, prompting more conversation at the Capitol.

“We’ve seen the immunization rates go down and the religious exemptions go up,” Coleman-Mitchell said at Monday’s press conference in the governor’s office.

She said she supports repeal of the religious exemption simply because “this is the time to act now.”

Coleman-Mitchell said she knows there are “many who sincerely believe that the religious exemption should not be repealed and vaccine rates by school should not be published. I sympathize, but I must follow the science that has been proven for more than 50 years and has saved millions of lives in our country.”

Measles was considered eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, based on the success of public vaccination programs. According to WHO, before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, major epidemics occurred every 2–3 years and measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year worldwide.

However, based on a variety of circumstances including the spread of misinformation about some of the risks involved with vaccinations, measles has made a comeback in the U.S. with 1,241 reported cases this year in 31 states — the most in 25 years. There were nine separate outbreaks (defined as three or more cases) in the U.S. in May. Currently, there are two outbreaks ongoing, both in the state of New York, in Rockland and Wyoming counties.

“As public health commissioner, I have the responsibility to protect the public’s health and to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” Coleman-Mitchell said.

Just one month ago, 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.

But things changed when Lamont announced the school-by-school data immunization data would be released.

“This is not always an easy vote,” Lamont said.

He said eliminating the religious exemption in October 2021 gives the state a “thoughtful way to plan.” He said he wants parents to feel their kids can go to school and feel safe. 

He said he’s going to take the lead on this and believes the facts are on his side.

“When it comes to health and contagious diseases this is something we’re going to take a lead on,” Lamont said.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said they are not forcing anyone to be vaccinated.

Children, who refuse to be vaccinated, will be prevented from attending school — public or private — as a result of the legislation if it’s approved.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said this is not a religious issue, “this is a public health issue and there is no valid reason for children not to be vaccinated, except for a health-related reason.”

Dozens of women crowded outside Lamont’s office door Monday holding signs like “My child, my choice!” and “Made up crisis!”

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Women wearing white gather outside Lamont’s office (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Barbara Rudini of Trumbull said if they are so concerned about immunocompromised children then they should be meeting with those families and coming up with a plan. She said it’s simply “false” to say unvaccinated children are the problem.

Rudini and other mothers were upset they were unable to attend the press conference and have yet to receive any response from Lamont or Ritter’s office. The mothers who support the religious exemption handed reporters questions to ask as they walked into the press conference.

Ritter, who advocated for the elimination of the religious exemption earlier this year, said there’s an opinion from Attorney General William Tong that says it’s constitutional and since the end of Connecticut’s legislative session New York and Maine have repealed their religious exemptions.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Ritter pointed out that the data that’s available shows the number of religious exemptions has increased and the immunization rates have decreased.

Immunization rates for measles among kindergarteners has gone down from 96.5% to 95.9%, according to the DPH. The department reported that religious exemptions for kindergarteners had increased 25%.

“This change represents the largest single year increase in religious exemptions for vaccination since the DPH started tracking the statewide data a decade ago and continues a trend of steadily declining MMR immunization rates among Connecticut kindergarteners since the 2015-16 school year.”

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Ritter said the data requires the state to “act now.”

He said in order to not have to take off his shoes at the airport he had to go through a 45-minute interview. He said that’s harder than it is to get a religious exemption, which in Connecticut only requires “you to check a box,” and hand it to a school nurse.

He said in 2008 there were 465 children claiming a religious exemption and today that number has increased to 1,600 to 1,700 — the DPH would not confirm those numbers Monday.

As for getting a religious exemption approved by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, “it’s rough seas,” Ritter said. “There are very vocal people out there. They will criticize you. They will file complaints against you. They will say all kinds of things about you, but you have to summon the courage to do what’s right by the public health by the vast majority of the people of Connecticut.”

Ritter, who has been vocal and a target of the groups supportive of the religious exemption, said the conflict of interest argument is ridiculous.

Ritter works for a law firm that represents pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim.

“Three hundred more people getting vaccinated because of a law change is going to change what for a company? It’s sort of a silly argument,” Ritter said.

Ritter was the subject of a complaint filed before the Ethics Commission for the “alleged conflict of interest” related to his employer’s business with Boehringer Ingelheim. Following Monday’s press conference Ritter said the complaint had already been dismissed.

Three states — Maine, New York, and California — have recently eliminated the religious exemption. Both West Virginia and Mississippi do not allow for any exemptions.