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Senate should follow House, end school vaccine exemption

The time is now. The Senate should not let this moment slip by. The state House of Representatives in the early hours of Tuesday made the difficult but right choice in voting to remove Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations. The Senate should do likewise.

Gov. Ned Lamont has said he would sign the bill. It would still allow an exemption for medical reasons, if approved by a physician, physician assistant or advanced practice registered nurse.

The vote was 90-53, Democrats overwhelmingly in support, Republicans largely opposed, but not unanimously, with some House Republicans from this area among those making the correct vote to end the religious exemption. The religious exemption would end on Sept. 1, 2022.

We recognize that a relatively small but vocal group of parents who have convinced themselves, in defiance of the scientific evidence, that vaccines to protect their children will actually harm them will not go quietly. They have turned up in large numbers at every hearing over the last few years to oppose removing the religious exemption.

But one of the things that we all should have learned in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is the importance of following the science. It is the development of vaccines against the coronavirus that provides the opportunity to return to normalcy. And it is the use of childhood vaccines over the past seven decades that have freed our society from diseases that once sickened, disabled, and even killed children.

With few exceptions, those claiming religious exemptions really have no doctrinal-based opposition, they simply don’t want their kids vaccinated. Rather than religious conviction, these parents are acting on false pseudo-science claims that vaccinations are linked to autism or other health issues. Science research has found no such correlation.

One could argue that a parent should be free to withhold such protection from their children. But the problem is that if too many opt out on the religious claim — and the numbers have been climbing — “herd immunity” is lost and the odds increase that children who are health compromised, and cannot legitimately get some or all the vaccines, could be exposed to diseases that heretofore have been largely eradicated.

In the 2019-20 school year, the most recent data available, 8,328 children – from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade – took the religious exemption, up from 7,042 in 2017-18.

If the bill becomes law, those who continue to choose not to have their children vaccinated will have to home school.

The state legislature passed a bill in 1959 making certain vaccines mandatory for children, with a particular focus on stopping the polio epidemic, which the vaccine accomplished. It was then that the health and religious exemptions were enacted.

Today’s mandatory vaccines are those that prevent polio, measles, mumps and rubella; diphtheria; pertussis (whooping cough); tetanus; and haemophilus influenzae type B, an infection leading to potentially fatal bacterial meningitis.

It was encouraging to see that the vote to back science and promote public health was largely bipartisan among this region’s House members.

Voting in favor of removing the religious exemption were Democratic Reps. Anthony Nolan, of the 39th District, New London; Christine Conley, 40th District of Groton and Ledyard; Joe de la Cruz, 41st District of Groton and New London; Emmett D. Riley, 46th District, Norwich; and Republican Reps. Devin Carney, 23d District of Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Westbrook; Holly Cheeseman, 37th District of East Lyme and Salem; and Kathleen McCarty, 38th District of Waterford and Montville.

Concluding constitutional protections trumped health policy — though we are confident state courts will disagree — two local Republicans, both members of the House Conservative Caucus, voted against the bill: Rep. Doug Dubitsky, whose nine-town 47th District includes a slice of Norwich; and Rep. Mike France, whose 42nd District includes Ledyard, Montville, and Preston and who is a candidate for Congress.

A reasonable compromise helped secure some Republican votes. Kindergarten through grade 12 students now claiming the religious exemption can continue to do so until graduation. The original bill had allowed only those in seventh grade and up to do so.

Given the amendment, Rep. McCarty, who had voted against the legislation in the Public Health Committee, voted in favor on Tuesday. We’d like to see Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who also voted “no” in committee, do likewise.

The moment is here, end the exemption.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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