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Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, co-chairs the Public Health Committee meeting Friday (christine stuart/ ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – The Public Health Committee raised a controversial bill Friday to eliminate the religious exemption to school immunization requirements for all school aged children before the next school year.

The bill also seeks to strengthen the medical exemption to vaccines and creates a board within the Department of Public Health (DPH) to monitor the program and examine the data.

There’s been concern that removing the religious exemption would cause the number of medical exemptions to increase because more parents would seek them regardless of whether they have a valid medical reason.

The new Advisory Committee on Medically Contraindicated Vaccinations created by the proposed legislation also will be given the responsibility of educating physicians on vaccines so they’re in a better position to communicate with families, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said.

Steinberg, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said he’s not comfortable with every aspect of the bill and expects the public hearing process to inform which direction lawmakers end up taking the bill.

“We have tried to be very understanding of all viewpoints here, but the bill is the bill,” Steinberg said.

Some lawmakers believe it’s unfair to kick high school kids out of school and force their parents to homeschool them for one or two years.

Deputy Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the unimmunized high school kids in question are not the ones most at risk for some of the childhood diseases, so the legislation could end up punishing a small segment of the population.

Statewide in the 2018-19 school year there were 1,469 kids who claimed a religious exemption and 195 who claimed a medical exemption. The total number of exemptions is 2% of the school aged population, but it’s a number that’s been creeping up over the past decade.

State Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, said he would like to see more “safeguards” before they remove the religious exemption because it would be taking away parents’ ability to send their kids to public school.

“Some people can’t afford to do home schooling,” Hennessy said.

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Rep. David Michel and Rep. Jack Hennessy converse before the meeting (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Hennessy said he appreciates that the bill would not add the HPV vaccine to the list of required immunizations for seventh graders. The HPV vaccine is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for children starting at age 11.

Under the legislation, the DPH also will continue to release school-by-school immunization rates.

In March 2019, shortly after a measles outbreak in Brooklyn, New York, CTNewsJunkie reported that the DPH was sitting on school-level vaccination rate data, but was unable to release the information by statute.

At that point, legislators began advocating for the release of the data, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, promised a vote on removing the religious exemption within a year.

In the following months, the DPH released two years of school-level immunization rates, which showed a 25% increase in the number of children claiming the religious exemption to the required vaccine schedule.

According to emails between Av Harris, the DPH’s director of communications and government relations, and Matt Cartter, the state epidemiologist and director of infectious diseases, the department was told “language authorizing school-level data release will be contained” in last year’s budget.

But it didn’t happen.

“The Legislature did not include the wording that we were hoping for regarding the release of school-level immunization rates in any of the bills that were passed before the end of the session,” Cartter said in an email to DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell in June.
Most of the Public Health Committee’s meeting Friday was consumed by discussion of how to conduct a public hearing in a way they are able to hear from the public.

State Rep. Bill Petit Jr., R-Plainville, joked that the issue of repealing the religious exemption was more than the elephant in the room, “it’s the T-Rex in the room.”

“I wish it were black and white, but it’s a gray area,” Petit said. “So it’s important to have a robust public hearing.”

Typically, the first hour of a public hearing is reserved for administration officials and lawmakers, before the public gets three-minutes to address the committee. One lawmaker suggested that the appointed and elected officials wait until the end of the public hearing to testify.

The logistics of the public hearing were not finalized, but it’s expected to be the only bill on the agenda when it comes up for a public hearing.