Vaccination rates low at some Westport, Weston schools, study finds

WESTPORT — A new report shows several Westport and Weston schools have lower-than-recommended vaccination rates among their student populations.

According to the report, Coleytown Elementary School, Greens Farms School and Saugatuck Elementary School had vaccination rates of 87.5 percent, 93.2 percent, and 92.6 percent, receptively — all below the federally recommended 95 percent guideline. In neighboring Weston, Hurlbutt Elementary School had a vaccination rate of 91.7 percent.

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The statewide study, released by the state Department of Public Health on Oct. 21, comes as lawmakers weigh the possibility of repealing Connecticut’s religious exemption for immunizations. Within a week of the study being released, it was also reported a child from Fairfield County had contracted measles, the fourth case in 2019.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said the findings were alarming. Steinberg, who chairs the Public Health Committee, added he would be involved in bringing forth legislation to repeal the religious exemption in the next legislative session.

“This data underscores the importance of doing so,” he said. “I know a lot of people will be upset because they feel strongly this is an option they should have, but my responsibility is to protect the public.”

The report also showed some schools’ rate of religious exemptions increased year-to-year. Coleytown Elementary School had a 4.7 percent rate for the 2018-19 school year, up from 1.3 percent the year prior. King’s Highway also increased from 1.9 percent to 2.5 percent.

Conversely, other schools showed a decrease. At Stepping Stones Preschool, the religious exemption rate was down to 5.5 percent during the 2018-19 school year, from 6.7 percent the year prior.

Steinberg said the growing resistance to vaccination is not secluded to one area of the state or any particular group, but has become far-reaching.

“I think they’re doing their homework in places that are confirming their fears instead of looking at good science,” he said.

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, said he hoped to work with fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to ensure classrooms were safe for every student.

“The number of schools that fall below the Center for Diseases Control’s recommended immunization rate has increased by 31 percent,” Haskell said in a statement on Oct. 21. “This is a frightening trend that threatens the health and safety of students in my district.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Weston, wants more research done before completely eliminating the religious exemption, adding many of her constituents have raised concerns about the potential repeal.

Hughes said she has advocated for her colleagues to demand liability from the pharmaceutical industry, and increase public education about the risks and liabilities of vaccines. She noted it was important to work community-wide to increase the public health and herd immunity of towns and school children population, while protecting medically comprised neighbors.

“Until these three initiatives are fully supported, resourced, and implemented statewide, we have no business eliminating the religious exemption in the absence of a clear and immediate threat to public health,” Hughes said. “We need to come together to protect public health, hold the for-profit industries accountable, and resource the independent research and science on how to improve our children’s well-being throughout our state and local community.”

Mark Cooper, director of the Westport-Weston Health District, said his department recommends people vaccinate their kids.

“I do understand the fear, but I think it’s misplaced,” Cooper said, adding legitimate medical reasons exist for people to not get vaccinated as well. “The bottom line is we would encourage people to get vaccinated. We don’t want to see the resurgence of childhood diseases.”

There could be several explanations for the recent emergence of long-eradicated diseases, according to Mark Thompson, executive director for the Fairfield County Medical Association — one being that many of the younger generation don’t know of the era when diseases like polio were the scourge of the time.

“I can remember pools being closed during the summer because there were polio epidemics going on,” he recalled. “Everyone was afraid of these terrible diseases.”

The spread of misinformation through avenues like the internet could also be a factor in the increasing rates. Thompson said naturally understands parents’ concern for their children, but noted doctors are constantly reading peer-reviewed medical literature.

“I think people should just weigh the information until it’s proven that getting vaccines is more dangerous than not,” he said.

For Steinberg, the growing trend also points to one word: Trust. Over the years, faith in the government and its officials have been undermined, he said, and this has made the conversation more divisive.

While Steinberg claims some constituents have tried intimidating him on Facebook on the topic, the legislator said he will continue pushing for civil discourse.

“The one thing I can do is have a very deliberate and transparent process,” he said. “My point of view is that vaccines are important for our safety, but I listen to people who disagree with me about that.”