The numbers are small, but the potential impacts are huge, according to Connecticut health officials.
New data released Thursday, Aug. 29 found more schoolchildren are being exempted from vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella -- citing religious reasons.
The total number of religious exemptions in the state climbed by 25 percent, from the 2017-18 school year to the 2018-19 school year, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.
The health department said the increase from 2 percent of students to 2.5 percent is largest single year upturn in religious exemptions for vaccinations since it began tracking statewide data 10 years ago.
There have been three measles cases reported so far this year in Connecticut.
While the immunization rate for kindergarten students remains high in Connecticut, the new information shows it has declined from 96.5 percent to 95.9 percent.
“It does raise concern,” said Public Health Commissioner Renee D. Coleman-Mitchell, adding how the new numbers warrant releasing more data, including county-by-county and school-by-school.
The health commissioner originally planned not to release the school-by-school data, but Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday overruled that decision, arguing the public should have the information.
As the law is currently written, Connecticut residents can present a statement saying their children are not immunized because it would be "contrary to the religious beliefs of such a child or the parents or guardian of such child."
In recent years, there has been a rise in unvaccinated children. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released in October said that the proportion of children receiving no vaccine doses by the age of two rose from 0.9 percent among those born in 2011 to 1.3 percent among those born in 2015.
Also on Thursday, a Bristol couple asked a court to stop the release of the school-by-school vaccination rates, arguing they’ll suffer “irreparable harm” if the information is released. Their unvaccinated son attends a private school where 18 percent of the students claimed a religious exemption from vaccinations, according to school-by-school data DPH released in May.
“We believe that out of deference and respect for the authority of the court, no new data should be released during the pendency of this litigation,” the couple said in a written statement. “To do otherwise is to move into the dangerous waters of undermining the separation of powers that is so important to our system of government.”
Coleman-Mitchell said the resurgence of measles in the United States is of major concern and the decline in Connecticut’s vaccination rates -- coupled with the increase in religious exemptions -- underscores the need to release both county-by-county and school-by-school data by Oct. 21.
State legislators have considered eliminating the religious exemption for immunizations. In March, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter wrote Attorney General William Tong to ask for a formal legal opinion "regarding the constitutionality of eliminating the religious exemption for required immunizations."
Tong concluded that it’s legal for lawmakers to get rid of the religious exemption.
Tong’s first formal opinion as attorney general found: “There is no serious or reasonable dispute as to the State’s broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children: the law is clear that the State of Connecticut may create, eliminate or suspend the religious exemption in Section 10-204a(a) in accordance with its well-settled power to protect public health and safety."
Tong's opinion followed updated statistics from the state Department of Public Health that found 102 schools reported immunization rates for measles, mumps, and rubella that were below Connecticut's standard of 95 percent last year.
Tong has said he doesn’t have an opinion as to whether the state should eliminate the religious exemption because that’s a policy decision for the legislature and the governor. Tong’s opinion focused on the constitutionality under both the federal and state Constitutions.
In Fairfield County there were 245 kindergarten children granted religious exemptions from vaccines during the last school year and another 41 kindergartners granted medical exemptions. (County breakdowns of the vaccination rates for 2017-2018 are attached in a PDF below as well as here.)See Attachment