Democratic lawmakers are getting ready to take on child vaccination legislation in the next session, which won’t start until January or February.
Four of the party’s leaders, including Rep. Matt Ritter, sent a letter to the state Department of Public Health Thursday asking public health officials to weigh in on vaccination requirements for school-aged children, including the state’s religious exemption policies.
“We need DPH to be very, very clear about what they need—both statutorily if they need changes, if they need more money for outreach, and ultimately what would be their final recommendation,” Ritter told reporters in May.
The legislators said they’re concerned with low vaccination rates at individual Connecticut schools—vaccination levels that fall below what is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Department of Public Health last month released school-by-school vaccination data that show some schools had as many as 15 to 37 percent of students who in 2017 were not completely vaccinated against disease like measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, varicella, pertussis and meningococcal meningitis.
Parents or guardians in Connecticut can get a medical or religious exemption if they can’t or don’t want to vaccinate their children for all or some diseases—a majority of the exemptions were for religious reasons.
“(The data) showed us the problem, but it didn’t necessarily show us the way,” Ritter said on how to address the lowest vaccination rates.
Some bills on vaccine requirements and exemptions made it before legislative committees this year and did get public hearings, but Democratic leaders said they chose to hold off on them until they could get more information and guidance from public health officials.
In their letter, legislators are asking officials if the department needs more authority to increase vaccination rates; what approach the state should take in protecting school children who can’t be vaccinated because of medical conditions; and if the state should remove the religious exemption altogether, joining states like California, New York and Maine, or find an alternative way to increase vaccination rates.
Parents who oppose vaccines have testified at several public hearings that they feel their religious rights would be violated if the exemption was eliminated, and that it could block their children from getting access to education.
Av Harris, a DPH spokesman, said officials will review, research and respond to legislators on these points. New school-by-school vaccination data for the 2018/2019 year was expected to be released in June, but Harris said that’s still “under consideration.”
This all comes after a Connecticut couple recently filed a civil lawsuit against the Department of Public Health over the release of school vaccination data.
Kristen and Brian Festa, the plaintiffs, have a son who attends a school identified with a high exemption rate. In court documents, the couple said since the public release of that data in early May, “hateful and vitriolic statements regarding non-vaccinated students and parents began appearing on the internet.”
Although they have not been specifically threatened, the Festas said in their suit that they and other families who are against vaccines and attend these schools may become “potential targets of harassment” and have already suffered mental and emotional distress from the greater public reaction to the data.
They seek to stop the release of any new school vaccination data and make the already released information no longer public.
A Superior Court hearing in Hartford is set for July 15.