Local Health Official Weighs In On HVWS Vaccination Controversy

Published: May 17, 2019 at 06:00 am


A national health controversy over exemptions from childhood vaccinations that lost traction with state lawmakers this session has also cast focus on a local private school has prompted comments from Newtown’s top local health official.

Revised figures from the Connecticut Department of Health (DPH) released May 10 show the local Housatonic Valley Waldorf School (HVWS) as registering the largest number of exemptions of any school in the state. According to the DPH, 37.7 percent of HVWS students have religious exemptions on file.

The revised DPH figures for 2018 released a week earlier incorrectly stated that 14.2 percent of HVWS students requested health-related exemptions.

Newtown Health District Director Donna Culbert explained following a phone conference with a HVWS spokesperson this week that the school and its leadership does not grant exemptions, they simply accept and honor exemption requests from parents or guardians of students.

The pre-K through grade 8 private school in the Dodgingtown neighborhood near Bethel had a student population of 109 in 2018, which is up to 125 this year, a school spokesperson said. Ms Culbert added that the school attracts its students from numerous western Connecticut and Westchester County, N.Y., communities.

Heightened concerns stirred up following an initial May 3 DPH release of statewide student vaccination exemptions and a follow-up with corrections a week later have come amidst a measles outbreak that initially had lawmakers in Hartford mulled eliminating religious exemptions from vaccinations in state law.

But CTMirror reported May 16 that state legislators have at least temporarily reversed themselves, abandoning their quest amid concerns about what to do with unvaccinated children who are already enrolled in school.

The change would not have forced children to be immunized, but it would have prohibited kids who are not vaccinated on religious grounds from enrolling in the state’s public schools. A sticking point in the debate was whether children already attending school should be allowed to return, or if the ban should apply only to those who had not yet enrolled.

“A lot of people were struggling. What do you do with a 17-year-old kid who’s a junior in high school? These are really hard things,” said House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford. “I don’t think the debate is so much about the problem; everyone now identifies there’s a problem in Connecticut. The question is what do you do about these very difficult situations.”

Earlier this week, hundreds flooded a hearing room and overflow spaces at the state’s Legislative Office Building to urge the General Assembly not to move ahead with dismantling with religious exemption. They called the eleventh-hour push unfair, and threatened to vote against legislators who supported the repeal.

Lawmakers originally had planned to introduce a bill within a year that would eliminate the religious waivers, but hastened their effort after reviewing school-by-school vaccination data released recently by Connecticut’s public health department. The data show 102 schools where less than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella – the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several schools across the state recorded double-digit percentages for religious exemptions to vaccines.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from January 1 to May 10, 2019, 839 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 23 states. This is an increase of 75 cases from the previous week. This is the greatest number of cases reported in the US since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.

The two largest outbreaks nationally are in neighboring New York.

In Rockland County, N.Y., nearly eight in ten of the 225 measles cases reported this year are in individuals who never had the MMR vaccine. Only 17.9 percent of reported cases involve individuals over age 19.

As of May 13, 2019, there have been 498 confirmed cases of measles in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y. Among those affected, only 90 are reported to be older than 18, while 220 are between the ages of 1 and 4, the CDC reports.

Christina Dixcy, communications director and office manager at the HVWS, previously told The Newtown Bee that, “The Housatonic Valley Waldorf School abides by state and local laws and Health Department requirements for public and non-public schools. State of Connecticut Department of Education Health Assessment Records are on file for children attending HVWS, including immunization records and/or medical or religious exemptions.”

The statement went on, “In the event of a vaccine-preventable disease outbreak at the school, students whose immunizations are not up-to-date for that disease according to state regulations will be excluded from school if a public health official determines that the school is a significant site for disease exposure, transmission, and spread into the community.

“The Housatonic Valley Waldorf school does not make medical decisions for parents and considers those decisions to be of a very personal nature for each parent and family,” the statement concludes.

Outbreaks Can Worsen

Locally, Ms Culbert admitted she was initially reluctant about weighing in on prohibiting vaccination exemptions. But after reflecting on the “invaluable experience and input from Dr Thomas Draper, Newtown Health District’s Medical Advisor,” she said she was compelled to comment.

“In addition to his district role, Dr Draper is a veteran Newtown pediatrician who has worked through the years of mass immunization of children in area schools for polio and measles,” Ms Culbert told The Newtown Bee, May 14. “There is a legitimate concern that the increase in the number of parents exempting their children could open the door for outbreaks of other currently controlled diseases.”

The Health District Director said Dr Draper echoes this sentiment time and time again.

In a 2017 interview with The Newtown Bee, Dr Draper said, “People and parents of young children need to be informed. Today, things like measles, polio, and smallpox have been virtually eliminated to the extent that they have virtually disappeared in the historical minds of Americans. They are either unaware or have forgotten about the hundreds and hundreds of people who have died from these and other (preventable) illnesses as recently as a decade or two ago.”

Taking that statement into consideration in view of the current measles outbreaks, Ms Culbert said she wants to “take this opportunity to raise awareness about the important role vaccines play in preventing serious, sometimes deadly, diseases.” Ms Culbert says when thinking about the benefits of vaccination, remember:

*Vaccines protect against serious diseases;

*These diseases still exist and outbreaks do occur;

*Vaccines are recommended throughout our lives; and

*Vaccines are very safe.

“An excellent source of information regarding immunizations is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web page,” Ms Culbert said.

That site can be viewed at

“The best guidance for a person’s particular vaccination recommendations will come from their healthcare provider,” Ms Culbert said. “Remember, immunization can save lives, but it is a shared responsibility, we must all work together to protect our community.”

She also reminds residents that school officials do not decide to grant vaccination exemptions. They are obliged to do so by statute when those exemptions are registered by parents or guardians.

‘We Have Concerns’

During the latest legislative hearing, Renee Coleman-Mitchell, Connecticut’s health commissioner, said of the areas with a swell of unvaccinated residents, “When we have an increase in the number of religious exemptions, it is, again, from a health perspective that we have concerns.”

Matt Carter, the state epidemiologist, told officials and speakers in attendance to think of herd immunity like “a shield.”

“If you achieve certain levels of vaccination in the population,” he said, “you can actually provide protection for everyone.”

Dr Jody Terranova, a pediatrician and board member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Connecticut chapter, seemed to echo the words of Newtown’s Dr Draper as she recalled a time when vaccines were “celebrated.”

“It’s amazing to me that we’ve come to a point where some are more concerned about a vaccine than the disease it prevents,” she said. “Our grandparents would have been lined up for the opportunity to prevent their children from suffering... Today, most parents of young people in our country are lucky to have never seen these diseases, but talk to the grandparents whose own parents wouldn’t let them swim in public pools for fear of polio.”

According to the DPH’s revised figures, the five highest schools providing medical, religious, and total vaccine exemptions for 2018 are at:

Housatonic Valley School, Newtown (Nonpublic) — 37.7 percent / 0.0 percent = 37.7 percent

Giant Steps CT School, Fairfield (Nonpublic) — 34.2 percent / 0.0 percent = 34.2 percent

Crossway Christian Academy, Putnam (Nonpublic) — 25.9 percent / 0.0 percent = 25.9 percent

Ann Antolini School, New Hartford (Public) — 21.2 percent / 0.8 percent = 22.0 percent

Christian Life Academy, Brookfield (Nonpublic) — 20.8 percent / 0.0 percent = 20.8 percent

To review the revised DPH vaccination report, CLICK HERE

CT Mirror content was used in this report.

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