Southeastern Connecticut House Republicans broke with party lines to vote in favor of a bill that would eliminate religious exemptions for vaccinations for school children.
The bill passed in the House yesterday 90-53 after a 16-hour debate that included votes on seven amendments, two of which were approved.
State Representatives Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, and Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, broke with the majority of Republican legislators in order to vote in favor of the bill.
The bill, if passed through the Senate, will require children entering a public or private school in Connecticut to be vaccinated for a number of diseases including diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, rubella and haemophilus influenzae type B. The bill does not mandate that children receive the coronavirus vaccine.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, chair of the public health committee and the main proponent of the bill, said that in recent years, more and more people have been claiming religious exemptions, leading to lower levels of herd immunity from diseases like measles and mumps, and, therefore, increased risk of an outbreak.
“Let me be clear: vaccine hesitancy is becoming a direct and serious threat to the public health,” Steinberg said in the session of the House of Representatives on Monday.
He said the bill is meant to prevent a public health crisis and to address a rise in mistrust of physicians and misinformation about science and medicine.
An amendment to the bill will allow children in grades K-12 who already have a religious exemption to keep the exemption. Another amendment allows children who already have religious exemptions and transfer schools to keep that exemption in their new schools.
Data from the Connecticut Department of Public Health showed that the percentage of kindergarteners claiming religious exemptions rose from 1.4% of students in 2012 to 2.3% in 2019. As of the 2019-20 school year, there were 106 schools that had more than 5 percent of students claiming some type of exemption from vaccination.
State Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, said during the House debate that the Department of Public Health told lawmakers on Friday that there were currently 7,645 with religious exemptions.
A tough decision
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, told Connecticut Examiner that she ultimately decided to support the bill because there are some schools that fall well below the 95 percent threshold for herd immunity.
“Before you can even begin to have your students learning, you have to have them safe,” said McCarty. “I was concerned about the immunocompromised students. I think it’s incumbent and the responsibility of the others to protect them, and to protect themselves.”
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, agreed with the need to protect children who couldn’t be vaccinated because of health concerns.
“Based on the testimony of the medical community who were overwhelmingly in support, I voted for the bill to ensure herd immunity and to protect the health and safety of the immuno-compromised children in our school systems,” Cheeseman said in a statement.
Petit, who also voted in support of the final bill, told CT Examiner that he had received communications from members of his district and from the state medical societies, all of which were in favor of eliminating the religious exemption.
Petit said that the statewide vaccination rates indicate that the majority of individuals are in support of vaccinations.
“So that’s telling you that 97 out of 100 people are willing to have their kids vaccinated, and presumably are in favor,” he said.
Democratic legislators from the southeastern region also threw their support behind the bill. Hours into the debate, State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, said she was “troubled” by the turn that the discussion had taken.
“I am troubled that the narrative of this bill has gone from the relative merits of vaccination to one of religious persecution,” she said on Monday. “I believe deeply in this bill as a compassionate, sensible data-based, science respecting movement.”
State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, told CT Examiner that he tried to keep his vote in line with how he believed his district would have voted.
“I was persuaded by the testimony of medical experts and looked back on my own experiences with my pediatrician, Dr. William Irving, who my mother and I trusted,” Carney wrote in an email. “I understand not everyone will agree with my reasoning, but I felt I did what was the right decision from a public health standpoint.”
A true health crisis
Cheeseman, McCarty and Petit all said they would not have voted for the bill without the amendment enabling students who already had medical exemptions to remain exempt.
McCarty said that this would have amounted to 30,000 children potentially being disenrolled in school.
“If we had 30,000 more students disenrolled … I think we would truly then have a health crisis on our hands,” McCarty said during the House debate. She added that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, focusing on the social-emotional state of children and closing existing opportunity gaps was critically important.
Petit and McCarty said they would have supported an amendment that grandfathered in pre-kindergarten children as well.
McCarty said she believed the bill wasn’t going to solve everything — she said there was still a need to collect accurate school vaccination data and run an educational campaign at the schools with low compliance rates to convince parents of the importance and safety of vaccinations.
Petit said they would also need to address the group of children who did not claim any exemptions but simply weren’t compliant with their vaccinations.
In the end, however, the representatives said that the question came down to whether or not they were in support of vaccinations.
“The ultimate decision was, do I believe in vaccinations or don’t I?” said McCarty. “I do.”