149 Connecticut schools fail to meet vaccination standards
HARTFORD — From 2017-18 to 2018-19, the number of schools in which fewer than 95 percent of the kindergartners and seventh graders were immunized for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jumped by 40, according to school-by-school data released by the state Department of Public Health on Monday.
Two years ago, there were 109 school buildings in which the students immunization rate for MMR was below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended herd immunity rate of 95 percent. Last year, the total was 149.
The statewide immunization rate among kindergartners dropped from 96.5 percent in 2017-18 to 96.1 percent in 2018-19 based on revised DPH data received from schools.
The public school kindergarten student MMR vaccination rate is 96.4 percent, and the private school kindergarten student MMR vaccination rate is 92.4 percent. For students to be relatively safe from measles, the Centers for Disease Control guidelines state that at least 95 percent of kindergarten students in each school need to be vaccinated.
The immunization data for 2018-19 shows that 134 schools with more than 30 kindergarten students had immunization rates below 95 percent. At least 41 of those schools are under 90 percent. Six were below 80 percent and of those, two were in the sixties in Hartford, including Achievement First Hartford Academy (62.6 percent) and Burns Latino Studies Academy (65.1 percent).
Of the 733 public and private schools tracked by the DPH, 547 had kindergarten enrollments above 30 students, requiring them to report their immunization rates. Of those, 134 — or 24.5 percent — reported MMR immunization rates below 95 percent.
There are only 23 seventh grades below 95 percent for the MMR vaccine — which is 7.42 percent of the 310 schools reporting. Of those 23, only two were below 90 percent, including Odyssey Community School in Manchester (89.2 percent) and Jumoke Academy of Hartford (76.5 percent).
Earlier this year, the DPH released data that showed 116 schools schools with kindergarten and seventh grades with immunization rates below the 95 percent standard for measles, mumps, and rubella. That number was later revised to 109 schools with kindergarten or seventh grades below the 95 percent immunization rate for MMR.
To derive the immunization data, schools report to the DPH the total number of students in kindergarten and seventh grade in each school, and then they report the total number of students who had either shown proof of vaccination or claimed an exemption. In Connecticut, exemptions to vaccination can either be for medical reasons as approved by a physician, or for religious reasons as stated by a child’s parent or guardian.
Connecticut’s second release of school-by-school data also shows that the number of religious exemptions to vaccinations has increased.
In August, the state reported that use of the religious exemptions from the MMR vaccine for kindergartners had increased from 2 percent to 2.5 percent. That number remained unchanged in the data released Monday.
Public health officials said it’s the largest single-year increase in religious exemptions for vaccinations since the state started tracking the statewide data a decade ago.
According to data released last week by the CDC, the national rate for non-medical exemptions for kindergartners was 2.2 percent, placing Connecticut above the national rate by 0.3 percent.
“While it is good that statewide in Connecticut we are still meeting the federally recommended MMR vaccination rate of 95 percent for kindergartners, I am very concerned that the number of schools falling short of this important immunization level continues to rise,” DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said. “The data reveal that a sharp rise in the number of religious exemptions is causing declining immunization rates. This unnecessarily puts our children at risk for contracting measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Coleman-Mitchell who told reporters in late August that she wasn’t initially interested in releasing the data, said, “The decline in vaccination rates and the increase in the number of religious exemptions validates the need to release immunization rates by county and by school for the 2018-19 school year.”
Gov. Ned Lamont overruled Coleman-Mitchell’s decision not to release the school-by-school data.
Brian and Kristen Festa, the Bristol couple hoping to prevent the release of the data pending their appeal, failed to win an argument Monday morning at the trial court. Late Monday afternoon Mr. Festa dropped a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court.
Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato who argued the motion to temporarily prevent the release of data pointed out once the department publishes the data, they can’t take it back. She said she’s disappointed they didn’t even get to the merits of the case.
Superior Court Judge Susan Cobb said because she doesn’t have jurisdiction in the case she can’t enter a stay.
Cobb ruled in September that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction because the Festas didn’t exhaust their administrative remedies with the DPH.
Lamont praised the decision to release the data Monday.
“This information needs to be available to the public and lawmakers so they are not operating in the dark as they make decisions for their families and shape public policy,” Lamont said. “I want to make it absolutely clear - nothing in the data that was released today identifies any individual student. Rather, it constitutes important public health statistical data critical to the ongoing debate on this trend, which is happening not just in our state, but throughout the country.”
He said he hopes the data will help inform the debate next session. Lamont supports eliminating the religious exemption to vaccines by 2021.
Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said the information released Monday was unfortunate but not a surprise.
Elliott, who has been advocating in favor of eliminating the religious exemption, said he’s grateful Coleman-Mitchell has endorsed the public policy.
Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said the data released today tells an interesting and upsetting story.
“Not only is the amount of schools without herd immunity a concern, the disparity between kindergarten data and seventh-grade data shows that religious exemptions have skyrocketed in recent years, and that the religious exemption has been very clearly used as a philosophical one (which CT eliminated years ago),” Linehan said. “Take, for example, one school in my district. 93 percent of kindergartners are vaccinated, compared to 99.4 percent when you reach middle school. All the exemptions in the elementary school are religious, while only .3 percent of the student body, half of all exemptions, utilized the religious exemption in middle school.”
Linehan concluded that the religious exemption is being used as a tool to skirt the elimination of philosophical exemptions.
In 2019, the United States has seen the largest increase in the number of measles cases in the last 25 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,215 people in 30 states had contracted measles between January 1 and August 22, including more than 1,000 in the neighboring state of New York. One of Connecticut’s three cases originated from New York. There are currently no active measles cases in Connecticut.