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Hundreds rally at state Capitol as COVID-19 pandemic opens up new front for anti-vaccine activists in Connecticut
Hartford Courant - 3/17/2021
Kevin Larsen worries that vaccinating his nine-month-old son will cause the child to develop autism, an unproven theory that medical experts reject.
Larsen, a 37-year-old videographer from East Hartford, says he also believes masks pose a health risk and provide no protection against the coronavirus. And when it’s his turn to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, he says he’ll refuse.
“You’re injecting yourself with chemicals,’' he said. “There’s been no long term studies about this vaccine.”
Larsen was among a crowd of several hundred anti-vaccination activists who rallied outside the state Capitol Tuesday. They came to protest two bills pending in the legislature that would eliminate the religious exemption for childhood immunizations and bar unvaccinated children from school.
Many of the activists clutched signs that read “My Body, My Choice,” “State Powers Stop at My Skin” and “COVID-19 Vaccine Uses Risky New mRNA technology.”
The vaccination debate has been playing out at the state Capitol for several years, as lawmakers sought repeatedly—and unsuccessfully—to end the religious exemption. (Parents of children who have a compromised immune system or another underlying medical condition that can put them at risk of an adverse outcome from a vaccine can still secure a medical exemption from a physician.)
The overwhelming majority of parents comply with the state’s immunization rules but in some pockets of Connecticut, vaccination rates have dipped in recent years, leading some public health experts to worry about herd immunity.
Fueled by skepticism about science and deep mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry, the issue has become one of the most politically polarizing topics at the Capitol.
This year supporters say they are determined to pass the legislation. The General Assembly’s public health committee held a hearing on the bills last month; it lasted 24 hours and drew testimony from hundreds of people, most of them critics. The committee is expected to vote on whether to move the bills forward by early April.
But anti-vaccination activists have been increasingly vocal in their quest to push back against such measures as well as other government public health policies enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are never going to give up fighting for our children’' declared rally organizer LeeAnn Ducat, the founder of Informed Choice CT, a grassroots group lobbying against the bills.
Several parents at the rally said they are worried the public school innoculation mandate would be expanded to include the COVID-19 vaccine.
The pandemic has “woken a lot of people up to what can and is happening,’' said Amanda Blake, a 39-year-old mother of five from Oakdale. “They’re already starting to test it on 16 and under. A lot of parents don’t want it, but there have been politicians that have made comments that, if and when it is approved for children, they would like it mandated for school.”
Republicans in the legislature have framed the debate as one of religious freedom, parents’ rights, and the government’s role in enforcing public health rules such as masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
“God bless every single one of you for being here, for standing up for your Constitutional and God-given rights,” Rep. Brian Lanoue, a Republican from Griswold, told the crowd at Tueday’s rally. “Does government have any business trying to define what religious freedom is? No. Our religious freedoms and parental rights are under attack.”
The crowd cheered Lanoue and the other four Republican representatives who spoke — Anne Dauphinais, David T. Wilson, Rick Hayes and Irene Haines.
Since the coronavirus vaccines became available late last year, public health officials have had to confront hesitancy from various groups, including African Americans. But a CBS News poll found Republicans to be the most reluctant to receive the vaccine: A third said they would not be vaccinated, compared with 10% of Democrats.
Jean DeSalle, a mother of three from Lebanon, Conn., is worried the COVID-19 vaccination could become mandatory. She says she does not believe government has a role in public health decisions; “ultimately any medical choice needs to be between a person and their doctor,’' she said. “I was a reasearch assistant in college and I understand the process and that it can have limitations.”
DeSalle is a registered Democrat “but I’m feeling a little betrayed by my party.”
Lauren Lisi of Oxford said she, too, is concerned about government rules regarding the coronavirus vaccine. “It wasn’t properly tested, it was rushed,’' she said.
Blake, the mother from Oxford, is a Republican, but she said the issue is a non-partisan one. “This isn’t even about vaccines,” she said. “This is about our rights being stomped on constantly. I want to be able to say to my children that I fought for them...their daddy and mommy stood up and fought.”
Daniela Altimari can be reached at email@example.com.
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