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Rep. Jack Hennessy opposed the legislation (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – The Public Health Committee voted 14-11 Monday to send a bill that eliminates the religious exemption to vaccinations for some children to the House.

The bill was amended to grandfather in any child that currently has an exemption. The amendment passed, 16-9, with bipartisan support. 

There are an estimated 7,800 children with religious exemptions enrolled in schools. Under the amended legislation, children from preschool to grade 12 who already have a religious exemption would be allowed to continue going to school. However, the exemption would not apply to any younger sibling who is currently not enrolled in a daycare or preschool program under an exemption. 

Rep. Bill Petit Jr., R-Plainville, said he believes in vaccines and his child is vaccinated, but after nearly 22 hours of hearing from the public, he’s worried about what happens to the educational opportunities of those who are not vaccinated.

“I think we really need to back off and look at this issue,” Petit said.

Not all parents have the ability to homeschool their child — a reality that impacted lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and prompted the compromise.

Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, introduced the amendment that would grandfather children who already have an exemption. It would also require the Department of Public Health to gather and report on more school-by-school data than they currently collect and it would allow anyone with an autoimmune disease in their family to qualify for a medical exemption.

The compromise, which allows thousands of children to continue attending school, wasn’t acceptable to everyone. And not everyone who voted against the bill is against childhood vaccinations.

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Click above to vote on 2020 HB 5044: AN ACT CONCERNING IMMUNIZATIONS

The accuracy of the data came under fire Monday morning before the committee meeting.

Echoing comments made by parents who oppose repeal, Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who has vaccinated her children, said lawmakers don’t have the data they need to make this decision.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who is leading the charge to eliminate the religious exemption has said the school-by-school immunization data was the single most important factor.

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Rep. Sean Scanlon proposed the amendment (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

“I think the data has been the single most important factor in getting Connecticut politicians to understand the serious nature of this problem,” Ritter said.

He said, “You can find out the third-grade reading level at any school in the state. You should be able to know the kindergarten vaccination rate as well.”

Scanlon said his amendment seeks more information about non-compliant kids and those with religious exemptions to understand what vaccines children aren’t getting.

The DPH data currently doesn’t include the non-compliant students, which are students who don’t have a religious exemption or a medical exemption, but have not gotten vaccinated or in the process of getting vaccinated when the school year starts.

The exemptions are only reported upon enrollment in kindergarten and seventh grade.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said the amendment should help the state dig deeper in the current data while protecting the identity of individuals.

But there’s no disputing that the number of religious exemptions is increasing.

“I think it’s increasing and it’s increasing very rapidly. The trajectory is the issue,” Anwar said.

LeeAnn Ducat of Informed Choice CT said lawmakers should not be making decisions based on what she called “erroneous data.”

Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, said the whole purpose of the bill was based on flawed information.

He said he hasn’t had a chance to speak with the DPH about the alleged inaccuracies in the data because it was just discovered Sunday.

“There’s a push to do this,” Hennessy said. “This is last-minute information.”

The data is only collected once in the fall when school starts and it doesn’t include children who may come into compliance.

Av Harris, a DPH spokesman, said the data is a snapshot in time and doesn’t include children who are non-compliant. He said those are children who are working with their schools in coming into compliance.

He said they are concerned about the trend, which shows an increasing number of children claiming religious exemptions.

There are 2.3% of children in Connecticut schools that claim a religious exemption to vaccination. That’s a slight dip from the 2.5% reported in August. It translates to 7,800 students who abstained from mandatory vaccines.

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Rep. Bill Petit Jr. and Sen. Heather Somers try to put the brakes on the legislation (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Between 2009 and the present school year, the number of religious exemptions used to avoid required vaccinations for school entry nearly tripled, from 0.8% to 2.3%. Overall Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination rates dropped by 2.3% over the same time period, from 98.5% to 96.2%, according to DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell.

The DPH has more information on the MMR vaccine for non-compliant kindergartners, but doesn’t know what other vaccines those children may be missing, according to Harris.

Scanlon said his amendment seeks more information about non-compliant kids and those with a religious exemption to understand what vaccines children aren’t getting.

The hundreds opposed to repeal who packed the Legislative Office Building again Monday reminded lawmakers after the vote that they would “remember in November” how lawmakers voted on this bill.

Then they followed lawmakers, including Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, and Sen. Mary Abrams, D-Meriden, who co-chair the committee, to the elevators yelling at them along the way.

Earlier in the day, Rita Palma of Bluepoint, N.Y., was charged with disorderly conduct and released on a promise to appear in Hartford Community Court for leading opponents in a “kill the bill” rally cheer.

Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, said when she was elected she was elected to represent all of her constituents and that’s why she supported the compromise of grandfathering.

“Obviously that is not going to be enough for all parties,” Cook said.

She reminded those opposed that there are just as many people in favor of this legislation even if they aren’t in the room.