School-by-school immunization data released Monday show kindergartners at 134 Connecticut schools are now below the vaccination rate recommended by health officials to shield all children in a given school from a measles outbreak, an increase from the year prior that’s been fueled by an uptick in students receiving religious exemptions to vaccines.
The number of schools with kindergarten classes below the 95 percent “herd immunity” threshold at the start of the 2018-19 school year increased 31% from the year before, according to the Department of Public Health data. That corresponded with a 25% year-over-year increase in kindergartners who received religious exemptions.
Small private schools, including Christian academies and Montessori schools, continued to have high exemption rates across all grades.
For example, more than 41% of students at Crossway Christian Academy in Putnam claimed exemptions. At Housatonic Valley School in Newtown, more than 36% of students were not immunized. And exempted students comprised more than 31% of the student body at Giant Steps Connecticut School in Fairfield.
While the state’s overall immunization levels remain high - 96.4% of public school kindergartners and 92.4% of kindergartners at private schools received the measles vaccine - the data released Monday show, like an earlier data set released in May, that there are schools that could be susceptible to an outbreak. All schools with more than 30 kindergartners were included in the data.
DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell called for the repeal of nonmedical exemptions to vaccination, a measure that failed during the last legislative amid a storm of protest from parents who wanted to maintain the religious option.
“I am very concerned that the number of schools falling short of this important immunization level,” Coleman-Mitchell said.
She said the rise in religious exemptions, from 2% of kindergartners to 2.5%, the largest single-year increase since DPH began keeping the data a decade ago, “unnecessarily puts our children at risk for contracting measles and other vaccine preventable diseases. To address this unnecessary risk, I have recommended to Gov. [Ned] Lamont and legislative leadership that nonmedical exemptions to vaccination be repealed. This will help ensure that all children in our state can learn in a healthy environment.”
The data was released after a Superior Court judge declined to block its publication as part of a long-running lawsuit brought by two Bristol parents who said they and other parents who choose not to vaccine their children faced “hateful and vitriolic statements” online after the first round of school-by-school data was released.
LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice CT, a group that argues vaccination should be a choice, has said that school-by-school numbers exaggerate the problem.
“They’re acting like there are these little Typhoid Marys walking around everywhere, and they’re just inciting panic in people,” Ducat has said.
But elected officials defended the release.
“[N]ow the public can see the facts,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said Monday. “This data is critical to the public health of Connecticut’s children and will be valuable to informing the state’s policy makers on any steps we may need to take.”
He said he was “concerned with some of the low immunization rates at certain Connecticut public schools. I will continue to review the data, work with public health officials and determine what steps the state needs to take to protect our children such as removing religious exemptions.”
Lamont said the information protects the privacy of schoolchildren and families while keeping lawmakers informed.
“I want to make it absolutely clear - nothing in the data that was released today identifies any individual student," he said. "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. I do not see any justifiable reason why the public should be blocked from having access to this information, and I hope it is used for exactly what we intended - to better inform people on both sides of this issue.”
The records make the case for more public information, not less, health experts said.
“We had a sense of security with a 98 percent [statewide] immunization rate, but what we are now understanding is that in pockets of schools, that may be a false sense of security,” Dr. Jack Ross, chief of infectious diseases at Hartford Hospital, said after the first school-by-school data set was released in May. “We are becoming ripe for the introduction of measles into populations with large numbers of unvaccinated children, and we are losing the protection and benefit of herd immunity."
Citing the increase use of exemptions, Lamont said, “We need to do more to protect children against preventable diseases, which is why it is even more pressing that we work with the General Assembly to repeal the non-medical exemptions in the interests of public health.”
Coleman-Mitchell said the 95 percent herd immunity level is particularly important to protect medically fragile children who cannot be vaccinated.
“Some children have conditions that affect their immunity, such as illnesses that require chemotherapy," she said. "These children cannot be safely vaccinated, and at the same time, they are less able to fight off illness when they are infected. They depend on community immunity for their health or even their lives.”
This year so far 1,250 cases of measles have been confirmed across 31 states, including three in Connecticut and more than 1,000 in Brooklyn and Rockland County, N.Y. That’s the highest annual total in 25 years.
Return to News Home