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Local senators in wrong camp on vaccine vote

Requiring children to get vaccinated against various diseases as a condition of enrolling in school is sound public policy. It does not infringe on religious freedom. Exemptions to the vaccination requirement should be reserved for those with genuine health issues that prevent their inoculation.

That is why the state Senate made the right decision in voting 22-14 on Tuesday to eliminate the religious exemption that an increasing number of parents have used to keep their children from being vaccinated. It leaves in place the health exemption. The House of Representatives had earlier passed the same legislation.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont signed the bill.

Disappointingly, three of the four state senators representing southeastern Connecticut chose to ignore the majority of voters, who recognize the need to enforce child vaccine requirements. Instead they sided with the loud minority of anti-vaxxers, their false pseudo-science claims, and counterfeit cries that their rights are being stripped away.

In our area, only state Democratic Sen. Norm Needleman of Essex, whose 33rd District encompasses Lyme, Old Saybrook, Chester, Clinton, Colchester, Deep River, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Portland and Westbrook, voted in favor of ending the religious exemption.

Aside from Needleman, our state senators chose the anti-vaxxer camp.

Democratic state Sen. Cathy Osten, whose 19th District includes Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Marlborough, Montville, Norwich and Sprague, joined Republican Sens. Heather Somers and Paul Formica in voting against the bill.

Somers’ 18th District includes Griswold, Groton, North Stonington, Plainfield, Preston, Sterling, Stonington and Voluntown, while Formica’s 20th District serves Bozrah, East Lyme, New London, Old Lyme, Salem, Waterford, and portions of Montville and Old Saybrook.

The vote by Somers was particularly disappointing. She was a strong advocate for public health awareness during the pandemic. Somers sits on the Public Health Committee and served on the Governor’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group. She should have sided with the science.

Osten was one of only two Democrats who voted against ending the religious exemption. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, marched in lockstep against the repeal, in the process trying to make it a fight for “freedom” for those who wish not to inoculate their children from disease. If Republicans are seeking a path to become a majority party, this isn’t it.

This was in stark contrast to the House, where local representatives voted in largely bipartisan fashion to end the religious exemption. Only Rep. Mike France of the 42nd District and Rep. Doug Dubitsky of the 47th, whose brand of conservatism borders on libertarianism, voted to keep it in place.

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. As those numbers grow, the odds increase that children who for health reasons cannot get vaccinated will become sick.

“Our primary constituency here is the large number of immunosuppressed and immunocompromised children for whom it is only safe to go to school if they can count on the immunity of their classmates, the herd immunity of those schools,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, well explaining why the religious exemption needs to end.

In 2019-20, 1,156 children claimed a medical exemption.

The state legislature passed a bill in 1959 making certain vaccines mandatory for children, with a particular focus on stopping the polio epidemic. 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.

With few exceptions, those claiming religious exemptions really have no doctrinal-based opposition, they simply don’t want their kids vaccinated. These parents act on false claims, repeatedly rejected by research, that vaccinations are linked to autism or other health issues.

If the bill becomes law no one will be forced to vaccinate their children, but those who choose not to do so will have to home school. We are confident the change in the law will withstand court challenges.

Repeal advocates made a significant accommodation; pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students now claiming the religious exemption can continue to do so until graduation.

Of course, this won’t satisfy the anti-vaxxers, who are zealous in their beliefs. But the loudest voice is not always the right voice. With this decision, the legislature has taken the right course in protecting children, providing for the public health, and affirming the logic of the scientific method.

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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