Regina Sung, Contributing Photographer

On Wednesday, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a bill that would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to vaccinations — excluding vaccines for COVID-19 — in schools.

H.B. 6243 eliminates religious exemptions from vaccines for students enrolling in all schools in Connecticut, including public schools, private schools, higher education institutions and day care. Beginning in September 2022, all students would be mandated to show proof of diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, rubella and other shots required by school districts at the start of kindergarten and seventh grade. 

This bill was passed following a seven-hour debate on the Connecticut Senate floor on Tuesday. That same day, thousands of anti-vaccination protesters gathered in front of the Connecticut capitol to protest the legislation. The bill passed in the Senate on Tuesday with a 22-14 vote, mostly along party lines. All Democrats except two voted in favor of the bill; all Republicans voted against it.

“I want to make it clear, this law does not take away the choice of parents to make medical decisions for their children,” Lamont said in a press release Wednesday. “But, if they do choose not to have their children vaccinated, this bill best ensures that other children and their families will not be exposed to these deadly diseases for hours each day in our schools.”

Per the new bill, children entering preschool or a new school district will no longer be able to opt out of vaccines on the grounds of religious exemptions. The bill, however, would not affect the current generation of students. All children from kindergarten through 12th grade can still claim religious exemptions until they graduate if they already have previously claimed a nonmedical exemption.

The bill also mandates that the state’s public health commissioner release immunization data for every school in the state. Other states in the Northeast, including Maine and New York, have already eliminated nonmedical exemptions for childhood vaccinations in schools.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, expressed the need for this bill in Connecticut given how unvaccinated students may affect their peers.

“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,” Looney said on the Connecticut Senate floor on Tuesday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are immunocompromised may not be able to receive certain vaccines, such as those for measles or mumps. Herd immunity is thus important to ensure the health of these students.

Looney also expressed concern about the rise in the percentage of unvaccinated students across the state of Connecticut.

The CDC recommends that 95 percent of kindergarteners receive the MMR vaccine for herd immunity.  The Connecticut Department of Public Health reported that 95.3 percent of all students entering kindergarten for the 2019-20 school year had received all the required vaccinations. In the 2018-19 school year, 96.1 percent of kindergarten students received all the required vaccinations.

In the 2019-20 school year, 141 out of 9,128 incoming kindergarten students in New Haven County had requested a religious exemption to vaccines. Among incoming seventh graders, 88 out of 10,076 students had asked for a religious exemption.

The state’s medical community has overwhelmingly thrown its support behind the bill. The bill received the endorsement of groups such as the Connecticut State Medical Society, the Connecticut Academy of Physician Assistants, the Connecticut Hospital Association and the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Allowing families to choose a nonmedical exemption to immunization dangerously undermines the ability to keep the rates of vaccination high enough to protect those individuals who are truly unable to be immunized for medical reasons,” Camille Brown, a pediatrician at Fair Haven Community Health Care and professor at the Yale School of Medicine, wrote in her testimony in favor of the bill.

Brian Festa of Hartford, co-founder of the CT Freedom Alliance and We the Patriots USA, has helped lead efforts to oppose this bill in Connecticut. He expressed a strong disapproval of the recently passed bill, claiming that such legislation violates parts of the United States and Connecticut constitutions.

“Not the least of which is the denial of the school protection of the law, denial of the free exercise of religion, deprivation of privacy under the Fifth Amendment, Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment, and there is a significant depreciation of bodily privacy rights,” Festa told the News.

CT Freedom Alliance has joined a list of plaintiffs who have filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the law in the federal and state courts.

This same piece of legislation was proposed last year, but it did not pass because the pandemic ended the legislative session early.

Correction, May 3: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Fair Haven Community Health Care as “Fair Haven Community Health Clinic.” The story has been updated.

Alvaro Perpuly covers Connecticut State Politics and local politics. He is currently a Sophomore in Branford College studying political science and history.