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August 3, 2022

Stefanowski says he is no vaccine skeptic but supports religious exemption

YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG Protestors demanding a continuation of the religious exemption from school vaccine requirements outside the Capitol in January 2021.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski said Tuesday that his courtship of voters opposed to vaccine and mask mandates does not signal a personal skepticism about the efficacy of vaccines.

“I do agree, believe, [we should] enforce the normal schedule of vaccine for kids,”  Stefanowski said in an interview. “I think it’s appropriate. My kids are all vaccinated. I’ve gotten both COVID shots and the booster.”

But Stefanowski stands with CTRAMM, Connecticut Residents Against Medical Mandates, a group he addressed last week, in opposing the repeal last year of the religious exemption from required childhood vaccinations.

“The fact that I went to a meeting with people that have different views? That’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said. “And when I’m governor, I’m going to listen to people that I agree with and people that I don’t agree with.”

Democrats said Tuesday at a video press conference that Stefanowski is flirting with a group that appeals to voters with extreme views about the efficacy and safety of vaccines and, in some cases, questions whether COVID-19 is real.

State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a physician specializing in pulmonology, grouped CTRAMM with extremists who have spread misinformation about vaccines and COVID-19.

“Here we have a small fringe group — loud, not nice, but very, very fringe group — which has been against science and has been wrong,” Anwar said. “This is the group that says that the disease is not a real disease.”

Stefanowski did not dispute that some CTRAMM members may hold positions more aggressive than restoring the religious exemption, but he does not share them.

CTRAMM is a non-profit formed from a movement that reorganized after Facebook banned it over claims it violated the platform’s rules on misinformation. When banned, it had 18,000 members; it claims 13,000 now.

Kate Kraemer Prokop, a founder, could not be reached Tuesday, but she described in an online video interview last year that the group narrowed its focus and grew more cautious in its return to Facebook, a platform she called difficult to avoid.

“But you can’t be truthful on it. … You have to keep so many things hidden. You know, like use code words. It’s like so absurd, right?” Prokop said.

Vague references to “parental involvement” reliably generate applause at campaign events, he told CT Mirror in an interview in June.  

“I don’t know whether it’s intentional or not, but I think COVID has allowed government to infiltrate every nook and cranny of people’s lives,” Stefanowski said then. “And they’ve now gotten between a mother and her child — they’re telling the mom the kid has to be vaccinated with COVID. They’re telling the mom the kid needs to wear masks. They’re telling the mom when and where that kid can go to school. They’re telling the mom here’s what we’re going to teach your kid.”

There is no required COVID vaccination to attend school.

In his first campaign for governor four years ago, a grainy video of Stefanowski telling an audience he had reservations about vaccination mandates for children drew a rebuke by Lamont.

The group’s focus is restoring the religious exemptions, a position supported by some parents who have vaccinated their children.

“This is not about science. This is about choice,” Prokop said in September.

She spoke on The Kevin Alan Show, a web show hosted by former state Rep. Kevin Skulczyck, R-Griswold, a retired correction officer who goes by Kevin Alan on his show.

CTRAMM is part of a network of groups that drew new members during the COVID-19 pandemic, opposing the emergency powers declared by Lamont and the temporary restrictions he imposed on commerce and public gatherings.

Early in the pandemic, Stefanowski played the role of a philanthropist, finding and donating the masks that were in short supply in the first months. 

But he has sided with Prokop and other critics of Lamont over a school mask requirement that was dropped on Feb. 7, the same day Stefanowski spoke out against the mandate. 

“They called me a while back when they were trying to get the mask mandate lifted for kids. I helped her with that. I believe we came out with a statement,” he said. “‘This is the least at-risk population. It should be up to the parent, whether their kid wears a mask. If the parent wants their kid to wear a mask, fine. But let’s not force it.’ That afternoon. Lamont magically lifted the mask mandate.”

The administration said the timing was coincidental.

Stefanowski has appealed to parents disenchanted with government over issues ranging from sex education to how America’s history of racism is taught in the public schools.

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