HARTFORD, CT  –  It was an emotional day of testimony for the Public Health Committee, which heard mostly from parents about their desire to avoid vaccinating their children while still being allowed to send them to school.

Nearly 2,000 people signed up to testify, but the 24-hour cap on the public hearing means those at the end of the virtual line won’t be heard. However, everyone has the option to submit written testimony.

As of 9 p.m., 170 members of the public and two lawmakers had testified. The hearing will go until 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. 

A majority of those who testified were against the legislation. 

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“If you remove the religious exemption I will be forced to uproot my family and leave Connecticut,” Daniel Joseph said. 

Joseph said his wife’s autoimmune disease doesn’t leave them with the option of homeschooling so they will be forced to move because his wife’s autoimmune disease is the same reason he can’t vaccinate his children.

“Medicine is never one size fits all and I understand you guys want to protect the public health but you can’t legislate a bill like this,” Joseph said. 

Not all parents share the same point of view. 

Kerri Raissian of Avon witnessed what happened when her youngest son got chicken pox before his first dose of the Varicella vaccine.

“No parent should ever have to go through that with their child,” Raissian said.

She  said her son was covered with over 400 lesions.

“I just assumed that because we got our children vaccinated on time that they would be fine that they would be safe, but that’s not true because vaccinations take time,” Raissian says. 

She testified in favor of the bills. 

The legislation was first proposed in 2019 following the measles outbreak in New York. It was the largest measles outbreak in the U.S. in 20 years.

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The Department of Public Health says there were more than 8,300 Connecticut students who claimed a religious exemption during the 2019-20 school year. That’s an increase of about 500 from the previous school year. 

“[Measles is] much more contagious than COVID and obviously the results, especially on children, are far more dire and impactful,” House Speaker Matt Ritter said Monday. 

Ritter – a proponent of the legislation and the father of two young children  –  has been pushing for this legislation and wants to see a vote on the bills by the full legislature. 

Gov. Ned Lamont is also supportive. 

“I’m certainly in favor of making sure we have more and more kids vaccinated and if I find, if it looks like people are using the religious exemption and we’re less likely to have people vaccinated in our schools and it’s more risky for their fellow students and more risky for teachers, I think the legislature’s on the right path,” Lamont said.

Lamont who got the COVID vaccine Tuesday said he’s doing everything he can to get people vaccinated. He said they don’t need to worry at this point about mandating the COVID vaccine for children.

“Don’t worry about your kids at this point,” Lamont said. “Don’t create problems we don’t have. Frankly, none of the vaccines have been tested for kids under the age of 16 at this point, so we don’t have to cross that bridge for some months.”

The Department of Public Health submitted testimony in favor of eliminating what they’re calling the “non-medical exemption,” but didn’t send any staff to testify in person.

They pointed to data over the past 10 years, which showed the religious or non-medical exemption, tripled from 0.8% to 2.3% in kindergarteners. The rate of vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) dropped 2.3% over the same period from 98.5% to 96.2%. 

“Measles, like other infectious diseases, does not recognize state lines,” Acting Public Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford said in her written testimony. “On average, each measles case exposes 200–300 people. Our declining overall immunization rate for measles among our school-aged population – and pockets of under-immunization in more than 120 schools in Connecticut – threatens our ability to protect our children from this potentially perilous infectious disease.”

Gifford added: “After looking at the trends, I believe we can no longer afford to put our school children at risk of infectious diseases by allowing non-medical exemptions to vaccination. We should not wait until our vaccination rates decline any further, or wait for the next measles outbreak, to take action.”

While the public hearing is scheduled to go until 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, there were objections to the time limit and holding a public hearing virtually.

“The fact that you’re going to cut off testimony on these two bills after hearing almost 24 hours of testimony last year and having close to 2,000 people want to testify today. I’m sorry it’s nothing less than abhorrent,” Melissa Sullivan said.

Sullivan who is opposed to the two bills says there’s no reason the state needs to be taking this step.

“You’re going to be removing healthy children out of our schools. Children that are already so taxed right now,” Sullivan said.

Those opposed to the legislation say they’re concerned the state is going to add HPV, flu, and COVID vaccines to the list of childhood vaccines required to attend public schools.

“I think it’s critical to note that the COVID-19 vaccine, both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines, have not been tested or approved for minors. It’s dangerous to conflate the two during the course of this public hearing,” Sen. Will Haskell said.

Parents who testified in opposition to the legislation say they still would not vaccinate their children if the legislation passes.

“I will not be bullied into making medical choices that may be detrimental to my kids,” Maddalena Cirignotta said.

As a result of her decision not to give her children all 72 doses of 16 vaccines, Cirignotta says pediatricians have refused to treat her children making it hard to get a medical exemption.

The 72 doses include boosters and would mean a flu shot every year until a person turns 18 years old. A flu shot is only mandated for pre-k and kindergarten students.

None of the most widely followed religions are on record opposing vaccinations. Some smaller factions – including the Christian Scientists and the Dutch Reformed Church – are reportedly opposed. Among cultures, rather than religions, the Hmong people, some of whom began immigrating to the U.S. from southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, reportedly don’t see vaccinations or other preventative medicine as part of their traditional healing practices.