The battle over vaccinations ramped up in Connecticut this week as state lawmakers narrowly advanced a bill—with last-minute amendments—aimed at banning religious vaccine exemptions for children.
If passed, the measure will no longer allow parents to cite their religious beliefs as a valid reason not to provide their children with life-saving immunizations, which are otherwise required for entry into public and private schools and daycares.
The legislature’s public health committee passed the bill Monday in a 14-11 vote bu t not before making a last-minute amendment that would grandfather in children who already have such an exemption. As passed, the amended legislation would only apply to children newly enrolling.
The bill was spurred by reports from state health officials of a 25 percent spike in religious exemptions from last year, lowering overall vaccination rates in state schools. According to the Connecticut health department, 2.5 percent of kindergartners have religious exemptions. The department estimated that about 7,800 children were granted a religious exemption in the 2018-2019 school year.
As such, the statewide rate of measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccination among kindergartners dropped 0.4 percentage points in the past year, bringing the current rate to 95.9 percent. While health officials consider 95 percent the threshold for effective herd immunity, vaccination rates are not consistent across schools. That is, some schools have clusters of unvaccinated children, increasing their risk of outbreaks. According to state data, 134 schools have MMR rates below 95 percent, and 41 schools have MMR rates below 90 percent.
“The risk of unvaccinated children is going to increase” if lawmakers do nothing, Democratic state Sen. Saud Anwar, a physician from South Windsor, told the Hartford Courant. “It’s happening in other parts of the world.”
But, as in other states, anti-vaccine advocates were swift to protest the proposed law. Last week, a public hearing on the bill reportedly drew thousands of people, and hundreds of anti-vaccine advocates signed up to testify. The hearing stretched on for an exhausting 21 hours. Anti-vaccine advocates returned to the capitol Monday to protest the bill.
The protests clearly influenced lawmakers’ decisions, with some suggesting that the anti-vaccine protests should spur a slower review of the bill.
“The Democrat leadership of the Public Health Committee ignored over 20 hours of public testimony and the voices of over 5,000 citizens to rush a bill without giving the advocates the courtesy of reviewing last-second changes,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano said in a written statement. “When we still have a month left to continue committee work on the legislation, why rush?”
But other opponents in the legislature seem to have their own distrust of vaccines and their efficacy.
“The whole idea of injecting a witches brew of chemicals that may work in a laboratory—when it comes into the body there is no telling what happens,” Rep. Jack Hennessy, a Democrat from Bridgeport, told an NBC affiliate last week. “What is being presented in this bill is not the truth. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.”
Ultimately, all Republicans and two Democrats on the committee voted against the measure. It will move to the floor of the state’s House and Senate before the end of the legislative session on May 6. Proponents of the measure said they will continue to update and improve the bill, the Courant noted.
In January, similar protests from anti-vaccine advocates led to state legislatures abandoning a measure to ban religious exemptions there. Lawmakers in support of the measure vowed to continue trying to pass the ban.