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Lamont signs vaccine bill into law

A bill repealing religious exemptions for school-mandated vaccines passed in the state Senate late Tuesday night and was signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday, following a daylong protest outside the Capitol, where thousands rallied to oppose the legislation.

Senators voted 22-14 to pass the bill Tuesday night after hours of debate as protesters chanted "kill the bill" and "my body, my choice" outside the Capitol. The Senate voted mostly along party lines, with Republicans and two Democrats — Sens. Cathy Osten of Sprague and Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport — voting against the measure.

The governor's office announced Wednesday afternoon that the bill, HB 6423, had been signed into law, updating the state's immunization requirements for students attending pre-K-12 schools, day care centers and higher education institutions by removing the option for religious exemptions, allowing only for medical exemptions.

Democratic Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, voted in favor of the bill. "I'm glad the vote is over. I do believe that we did the right thing for the preponderance of kids coming into schools in future generations," he said.

The senator said he thinks this was the right time to pass the bill and hopes it will prevent or mitigate public health crises in the future.

"It is our job to protect the public and I believe we did that," he said. "It would not have been acceptable to wait until there's a public health crisis to do something. We needed to be proactive at this point."

Needleman said that, when it came to deciding how to vote, "science and good judgment is what swayed me." He said he thought of his family, especially his seven grandchildren, when he cast his vote.

Sen. Osten, one of only two Democrats to vote against the bill, said she also considered her own children when deciding how to vote.

The senator said that while she was stationed in Japan in the military, she declined a vaccine for the H1N1 virus while she was pregnant, concerned about the unknown effects on an unborn child. She spoke with her superiors about her concerns and was allowed to choose not to get the vaccine, a freedom she wants parents in Connecticut to have.

"I always feel that people should have a choice to do what they want with their children," Osten said. "I keep going back to that decision that I made and I think everyone should be able to make that decision for their own children."

The region’s Republican state senators — Paul Formica of East Lyme and Heather Somers of Groton — voted against the bill. Both said there was no need to rush the passage when the state should be focused on engaging with families who are noncompliant with vaccine mandates without religious or medical exemptions.

The senators both said that since religious exemptions have been allowed in Connecticut there have been no major outbreaks of diseases in schools, and parents who choose a religious exemption agree to pull their children out of school and quarantine them if necessary, reducing the risk of contagion.

Formica said he had conversations with dozens of parents who were concerned about their children's health following vaccinations and that “most importantly, parents need an opportunity to protect their children.”

“I think there is more of a compelling argument to protect families than the proponents made of the danger they think exists,” he said.

Somers said she had a slew of objections to a bill she described as very complex. She said one of her main concerns was with data collection surrounding school-age vaccination rates that she said is inaccurate and done at too early an age, without accounting for cases where a child is exempt from one vaccine but not others.

Somers also took issue with the grandfather clause that allows children who are already in school and have a religious exemption to remain unvaccinated. She said the exception is evidence that there is no immediate public health crisis that the bill was meant to address.

“If there truly is a public health emergency, they have not shown that by grandfathering everybody in,” she said.

Somers also brought up concerns for military families that move to Connecticut from other states, where their religious beliefs allow them to be exempt from certain vaccines. She said an amendment was presented to make an exception for military families, but it was rejected. Republicans had filed dozens of amendments to the bill.

Somers said she isn’t against vaccinations but is against taking away religious freedoms. “I’m vaccinated, my kids are vaccinated, I want people to get vaccinated,” she said. “Yet we’re pulling away a religious right.”

Somers, who said she has been working diligently to conduct outreach and provide education on the COVID-19 vaccines, said she wished the state Department of Public Health had put in more effort to educate people about vaccines and collect proper data before legislation like this was passed.

She also said the bill is unfair to any child whose education may be disrupted by the repeal of religious exemptions. Not allowing children to attend schools without vaccinations that are ultimately up to their parents, she said, punishes children for something they can’t choose or control: their religion.

"We're penalizing children that really have no choice when there are much less intrusive things that we could do to increase the vaccination rate," she said.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, the governor said the religious exemption was an issue he spent a great deal of time learning about and speaking to medical experts about.

"When it comes to the safety of our children, we need to take an abundance of caution. This legislation is needed to protect our kids against serious illnesses that have been well-controlled for many decades, such as measles, tuberculosis, and whooping cough, but have reemerged," Lamont said.

The governor said that in recent years, the number of children in Connecticut who are not compliant with required vaccines has been increasing, a number that "has been mirrored by significant growth in preventable diseases across the nation."

At a rally that drew more than 3,000 people on Tuesday, many parents held signs with phrases like "my child, my choice," "state power stops at my kids' skin" and "I don't coparent with Lamont."

Speakers at the rally encouraged protesters to speak out against what they feel is an infringement of their parental rights and freedoms.

"I want to make it clear, this law does not take away the choice of parents to make medical decisions for their children," Lamont said Wednesday. "But, if they do choose not to have their children vaccinated, this bill best ensures that other children and their families will not be exposed to these deadly diseases for hours each day in our schools."

t.hartz@theday.com

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