States seek to cut off religious exemptions for vaccination

An illustration provides a 3D graphical representation of a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle studded with glycoprotein tubercles in this handout image obtained by Reuters April 9, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 07 May 2019

States seek to cut off religious exemptions for vaccination

  • The 440-foot Freewinds ship was previously quarantined in St. Lucia after a crew member was diagnosed with measles

NEW YORK: Connecticut’s Attorney General gave state lawmakers the legal go-ahead Monday to pursue legislation that would prevent parents from exempting their children from vaccinations for religious reasons, a move that several states are considering amid a significant measles outbreak.
The non-binding ruling from William Tong, a Democrat, was released the same day public health officials in neighboring New York called on state legislators there to pass similar legislation . Most of the cases in the current outbreak have been in New York state.
Tong offered no stance on whether the Connecticut General Assembly should scrap the exclusion, but he made it clear in the seven-page letter there is nothing in the law that would prevent the state from ending the exemption.
“There is no serious or reasonable dispute as to the State’s broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children: the law is clear that the State of Connecticut may create, eliminate or suspend the religious exemption,” Tong wrote, adding that it’s within the state’s “well-settled power to protect public safety and health.”
Connecticut is just one of several states considering whether to end longstanding laws that allow people to opt out of vaccinations for religious purposes. In the face of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, some have alleged religious exemptions have been abused by “anti-vaxxers” who believe vaccines are harmful despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
But the proposals to eliminate the opt-outs have also sparked emotional debates about religious freedom and the rights of parents.
Most religions have no prohibitions against vaccinations, according to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee. Yet the number of people seeking the religious exemption in Connecticut has been consistently climbing. There were 316 issued during the 2003-04 school year, compared to 1,255 in the 2017-18 school year.
Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, of Hartford, who wants the General Assembly to vote on ending the exemption, had requested Tong’s formal opinion — his first since taking office in January.
It’s unclear when or if Connecticut lawmakers might vote on ending the exemption this session, which ends June 5.
“I think there’s a growing consensus that Connecticut is going to need to do something pretty bold in the coming weeks, coming months,” Ritter said last week.
While Connecticut’s statewide immunization rate is high — 96.5% of kindergarten students are vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella — concern persists about the growing number of families that have sought the religious exemption in recent years and the likelihood of bogus exemptions.
The state’s Department of Public Health released school-by-school data for the first time on Friday that showed more than 100 out of more than 1,300 public and private schools listed fell below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended 95% immunization rate among kindergarteners.
In neighboring New York, medical organizations and county health officials on Monday called for eliminating that state’s religious exemptions for vaccines and allowing only medical exemptions. Most of the nation’s 764 reported cases of measles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been in New York. Health officials there say the majority of its cases have occurred in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and nearby Rockland County.
Connecticut has had three confirmed cases of measles, including one tied to New York.
Last week, the Maine state Senate moved to end philosophical exemptions to vaccines but stopped short of ending religious exemptions. The bill still awaits further legislative action. And last month, California’s Senate Health Committee approved a proposal to give state public health officials, instead of doctors, the power to decide which children can skip their shots before attending school.
Meanwhile, the Colorado legislature last week abandoned efforts to make it harder for parents to option their children out of vaccines. The bill had drawn big crowds of vaccination opponents to the state Capitol.
In Connecticut, parents’ rights groups, socially conservative groups and dozens of Republican lawmakers have balked at the discussion of rolling back the stateeligious exemption. Angry parents have appeared at the Capitol for weeks, making it clear to legislators they believe their rights are at risk.
“They want to stop people who they think are abusing the religious exemption and that is incorrect. The government has zero right to ask you what your religion is or for you to explain it,” said Shannon Gamache, of Ashford, in a recent interview. She chose not to have her son fully vaccinated after he experienced what she believes were adverse side effects from a vaccine.
All 50 states have laws requiring students to have certain vaccinations. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all but Mississippi, West Virginia and California grant religious exemptions. As of Jan. 30, the conference said 17 states allowed people to exempt their children for personal, moral or other philosophical beliefs.


New virus cases in China fall for 2nd day, deaths top 2,000

In this picture taken on February 14, 2020, a Malaysia Airlines hostess (R) wearing a protective face mask checks the temperature of a Chinese passenger before she boards a flight to Beijing at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Kuala Lumpur. (AFP)
Updated 19 February 2020

New virus cases in China fall for 2nd day, deaths top 2,000

  • China may postpone its biggest political meeting of the year, the annual congress due to start in March, to avoid having people travel to Beijing while the virus is still spreading

BEIJING: New virus cases in China continued to fall Wednesday, with 1,749 new infections and 136 new deaths announced after China’s leader said disease prevention and control was at “a critical time.”
The much-criticized quarantine of a cruise ship in Japan to avoid spreading the virus ends later in the day. The 542 cases on the ship were the most in any place outside of China and medical experts have called the quarantine a failure.
The updated figures on the COVID-19 illness for mainland China bring the total for cases to 74,185 and deaths to 2,004. New cases have fallen to under 2,000 daily for the past two days.
Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke about the efforts to control the outbreak in a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described in state media.
Separately, the UN secretary-general told The Associated Press that the virus outbreak “is not out of control but it is a very dangerous situation.” Antonio Guterres said in an interview in Lahore, Pakistan, that “the risks are enormous and we need to be prepared worldwide for that.”
China has locked down several cities in central Hubei province where the outbreak hit hardest, halting nearly all transportation and movement except for the quarantine efforts, medical care and delivery of food and basic necessities.
China also may postpone its biggest political meeting of the year, the annual congress due to start in March, to avoid having people travel to Beijing while the virus is still spreading. One of the automotive industry’s biggest events, China’s biannual auto show, was postponed, and many sports and entertainment events have been delayed or canceled.
Many countries set up border screenings and airlines canceled flights to and from China to prevent further spread of the disease, which has been detected in around two dozen countries and caused almost 1,000 confirmed cases outside mainland China. Five deaths have been reported outside the mainland, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and France.
The largest number of cases outside China is the 542 on the Diamond Princess at a port near Tokyo.
South Korea evacuated six South Koreans and a Japanese family member from the ship, and they began an additional 14-day quarantine Wednesday. More than 300 American passengers were evacuated earlier and are quarantined in the United States, including at least 14 who had tested positive for the virus.
On Tuesday, the US government said the more than 100 American passengers who stayed on the ship or were hospitalized in Japan would have to wait for another two weeks before they could return to the US
The US also upgraded its travel advisory for China to Level 4, telling its citizens not to travel to anywhere in the country and advising those currently in China to attempt to depart by commercial means.
“In the event that the situation further deteriorates, the ability of the US Embassy and Consulates to provide assistance to US nationals within China may be limited. The United States is not offering chartered evacuation flights from China,” the notice said.
“We strongly urge US citizens remaining in China to stay home as much as possible and limit contact with others, including large gatherings. Consider stocking up on food and other supplies to limit movement outside the home,” the notice said. The US previously flew out scores of its citizens on charter flights from Wuhan but does not have any further plans to do so, it said.
Despite, such warnings, the capital Beijing was showing signs of coming back to life this week, with road traffic at around a quarter of usual up from virtually nothing a week ago. While most restaurants, stores and office buildings remained closed, others had reopened. People entering were required to have their temperatures taken and register their contact information.