State Sen. Norm Needleman and Rep. Irene Haines take questions from constituents at a Monday night forum in East Haddam.

Needleman, Haines Take Questions on Vaccinations, High School Track, Marijuana, in East Haddam

EAST HADDAM — A state bill that would end the state’s religious exemption for mandated vaccinations was the dominant topic at a Monday forum with East Haddam’s two state legislators. 

Amid questions from constituents, Rep. Irene Haines (R-East Haddam) and Sen. Norman Needleman (D-Essex) also touched on 5G infrastructure, medical marijuana, and funding for a track at Nathan Hale-Ray High School.

Emily Maxfield, a resident of Portland, said that House Bill 5044 was “icing on the cake for how the state government has been absolutely crushing families. The conversation around the dinner table has now become ‘Why are we here?’ Between the taxes and the proposed tolls, they’re now taking away our personal and religious freedoms to our bodies and our children’s bodies.”

Forum moderator Jess Stone, president of the East Haddam Business Association, recognized about 20 speakers over about the hour-and-a-half forum at Grange Hall, and at least 9 of those speakers advocated for the religious exemption.

Needleman acknowledged that the issue is “emotional” and “complicated,” and that while the bill hasn’t yet left committee and the specifics aren’t yet clear, he would generally support curtailing religious exemptions for vaccinations.

“I support, generally speaking, immunizing the entire population before they go into school,” Needleman said. “That’s been the law for a long time. It’s not new. It’s a religious exemption that is being discussed. There are public health officials who know the data better than I do, that feel, on a town by town basis, there are increasing numbers that they feel threaten the safety of the population at large.”

Haines, by contrast, said that she declined the HPV vaccine for her own children and connected the decision to her Catholic faith. She said the legislature should “slow it down” on this bill, do more research, and that “we don’t need to ram this down people’s throats.”

“This bill came up quickly,” Haines said. “And it’s in the fast lane, and I’m not sure why. I do think there is research on both sides that needs to be looked at more strategically and more carefully. I think there’s science, good and bad, on both sides.”

Jessica Stewat, a resident of East Hampton, said that removing the exemption would be promoting “hate speech, discrimination and the segregation” of a minority group.

“I am appalled by the behavior of state representatives and senators up at the capitol,” Stewart said. “I feel for you. Our passion is just the same. We are trying to protect our children. It is our right to make medical decisions on behalf of our children.”

At several points, Stewart and Maxfield received applause from much of the audience, but not all speakers at the forum were opposed to removing the exemption.

“I am here representing the vast majority of Connecticut parents who strongly favor immunizations,” said Linda Schroth of East Hampton, who said she was a retired family physician.

“In my 38 years of practice,” she continued, “I saw children die and get very sick and be hospitalized because they had not gotten their immunizations … When you decide about this, please listen to the facts and the science and do not listen to people who are getting their information from internet bloggers and celebrities.”

Bonding, 5G, and marijuana

The night’s first two constituent speakers were Eric Sikorski and Aidan Behilo, students and track team captains at Nathan Hale-Ray High School, who asked for the legislators to support bonding to install a track at the high school. They said that supporters in town are hoping for a referendum on the project in May.

“When a new school construction project was approved in 1990, a track was included in the plans,” Sikorski said. “However, it was cut from the plans to provide funding to open a school in 1994, and the track was never completed. It’s been 26 years now, and we wanted to see about bonding funds for the construction of a track …. Currently we’re the only shoreline school without a track and possibly the only school in the state without one.”

Sikorski said that the track team currently practices in the school parking lot, which has caused “problems and injuries.”

Needleman said that he had met with leaders of the Appropriations Committee and that this specific project was “high on the list” for including in the session’s bonding bill, which has not passed yet.

“Hopefully in the next week or two [the bill] will pass, but then the governor has to approve it. I’ve done my part in getting it in the bill, and hopefully we can get them to move it forward. But you’re right. It’s not appropriate that you don’t have a track.”

Other residents brought up the possibility of Connecticut legalizing marijuana for retail sale in this session, and all who brought it up had criticisms for that plan.

Needleman and Haines also differed on this issue.

Haines said legalization would be “a dangerous precedent to set for our children.” Needleman said he campaigned on supporting legalization and believed it was “inevitable” now that “you don’t need to go more than 30 miles outside of Hartford now to go [to Massachusetts] where it’s legal.”

Erin and Larry Herman of East Haddam spoke against marijuana legalization. They said their son had been killed in 2018 by a drugged driver who was using marijuana and other drugs.

“If we legalize marijuana … it is only going to impact public safety,” Erin said. “I don’t want any other family to ever have to go through this.”

Larry added, “One life is not worth the money that the state will make from it.”

Needleman said that hearing from parents like the Hermans had “given him pause” during marijuana debates, and any bill on the topic that he would support would have to include training for police officers related to marijuana.

Another resident said that he was concerned that the installation of 5G infrastructure around the state could cause health problems. 

Needleman co-sponsored an act in 2019 that created a process for permitting 5G installations on state property. He said that officials from the federal government, Verizon, and AT&T have assured state officials that there are not health risks to 5G and that European countries have already moved ahead installing them.

“I’m old enough to remember when the first microwaves came out and people said very similar things about the first microwaves. That it’s going to be killing you, you shouldn’t have on in your house.”

5G, he said, is something that Connecticut will need “to keep up with the rest of the world, to have autonomous vehicles, and to have the kind of communication infrastructure we need to have going forward. It’s something that is being globally rolled out.”

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