Nearly 2,000 members of the public were signed up to testify at Tuesday's unprecedented 24-hour, virtual legislative hearing on two contentious bills that would eliminate the state’s religious exemption from certain vaccinations for schoolchildren.
The arguments were similar to previous years, when opponents to the legislation packed the halls of the state Capitol complex in Hartford and waited hours to testify in person, many with their children in tow. Parents concerned about the safety of vaccines argued that stripping the exemption would infringe on their religious and parental rights, as well as their child's right to a public education.
Connecticut would continue to have a medical exemption from childhood vaccinations, if deemed necessary by a physician.
“I would never vaccinate my children. That is a hill I will die on,” said Rachael Butova, a parent who said she is considering moving out of the state because she keeps having to “defend” her 1st Amendment rights. “Whether this bill goes or not, I think we're in dangerous territory in Connecticut so I don't want to stay here.”
This year, opponents also criticized the General Assembly's Public Health Committee for resurrecting the concept during a pandemic, when the state Capitol complex is closed and members of the public are only allowed to testify via Zoom or submit written testimony.
“Honestly, I'm quite appalled that the state thinks that this is even a good idea at this juncture,” said Melissa Sullivan, executive vice president of Health Choice CT, a nonprofit group that advocates for medical choice. She and others questioned how many people would get the chance to address lawmakers.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the committee co-chairman, has said the 24-hour limit on virtual testimony was made for practical reasons. He said lawmakers were advised that an indefinite period for public testimony could drag out the hearing for multiple days. An in-person public hearing held last year lasted more than 22 hours. Members of the public were allowed to submit written testimony.
Lawmakers have been grappling with how to boost childhood immunization rates for several years. Proponents of the two similar bills up for debate Tuesday, who were greatly outnumbered at the public hearing, voiced concern that a growing number of parents with concerns about vaccine safety are seeking a religious exemption in Connecticut for their children. This trend comes amid a gradual increase in the number of cases of vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S., such as measles, said Dr. Jack Ross, an infectious disease specialist with Hartford Healthcare.
Ross said having fewer children vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella ultimately puts others at risk, including the elderly, people with compromised immune systems and children with medical issues who can't be vaccinated. He said many people are being misled by what they read on the internet or don't realize how serious these diseases can be.
“We as a society have become complacent. We do not understand the implications of these diseases, what the devastating side effects of these diseases can be,” Ross said.
Many of the parents who testified, often with their young children appearing on camera next to them, were not persuaded. Kelsey Sperl, for example, the mother of a toddler who she said will no longer be able to attend daycare if the exemption is eliminated, questioned whether a link between unvaccinated children and the spread of disease has been proven.
Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday that he supports having more students vaccinated in Connecticut.
“If it looks like people are using the religious exemption and we’re less likely to have people vaccinated in our schools, it gets more risky for their fellow students and more risky for teachers, I think the legislature’s on the right path,” he said.
Meanwhile, some parents raised concerns during Tuesday's hearing that state officials could ultimately require children to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The issue was also brought up by some parents last month who appeared at the state Capitol on opening day of the legislative session to protest ending the religious exemption.
Lamont told The Associated Press at the time there were no plans to require the vaccination of students for COVID-19.
“I tell people I have enough real problems. We don't have to make up problems like requiring vaccine for students,” Lamont said. “Right now, the vaccine is not even authorized for students. Nobody is talking about requirement. Let me deal with real problems.”
The bill will await further action by the committee.
Associated Press Writer Dave Collins contributed to this report.