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Republicans go to war over vaccine passports

David Knowles
·Senior Editor
·5 min read
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Several prominent Republicans are sounding the alarm over a Biden administration initiative to partner with private companies to develop a so-called vaccine passport, which would offer proof that a person had been inoculated against COVID-19. 

While the idea behind the passports is that businesses like restaurants, sporting venues, airlines and retail outlets could use them to hasten a return to normal operation, the fear among some Republicans is that curtailing the ability of nonvaccinated persons to reenter everyday life represents a form of government tyranny. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in recent months has become perhaps the most prominent GOP governor in the country, said Monday that he would sign an executive order prohibiting the use of vaccine passports in the state. 

“We are not supporting doing any vaccine passports in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.”

Like those in most U.S. states, Florida's public schools and daycare centers require students to be vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and other diseases before being allowed to attend. While religious exemptions are permitted, the science behind vaccinating schoolkids before allowing them to congregate in classrooms is the same when it comes to businesses and COVID-19. 

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The state of Hawaii, which has required that COVID-19 tests be given to all travelers, is now considering using an app that would display a person’s vaccination status without divulging other health information.  

“They would be able to verify the health record, they would then encrypt it so people can’t steal someone’s health record. Although really, all it is is whether you got vaccinated or not and your name and the date it occurred," Josh Green, the state's Democratic lieutenant governor, told KHON2.

On Tuesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky announced that studies have confirmed that those who are fully vaccinated pose little or no threat of spreading COVID-19. 

“Our data from the CDC today suggest that vaccinated people do not carry the virus,” Walensky said. 

Yet for several Republicans, what stands out about vaccine passports is that they could restrict what those who refuse to be inoculated could do. 

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Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said in a statement to Fox News that getting vaccinated is a personal decision and that attempts to limit freedoms to travel or frequent businesses represent creeping authoritarianism.

“Vaccine credentials would be a complete government overstep. Individuals in America have a personal responsibility for their health,” Sessions told Fox News. “Implementing a ‘vaccine passport’ runs the risk of undermining public trust and substantially limiting normal day-to-day essential activities.”

While being vaccinated drastically reduces the possibility of being infected with COVID-19, the risk doesn’t disappear completely, although severe illness and death from the disease become next to nonexistent. If not enough people get vaccinated, however, the U.S. population won't reach the herd immunity threshold that protects those who, for other health reasons, cannot be vaccinated for COVID-19. And with the virus continuing to circulate — new U.S. cases are up 20 percent over the last 14 days — the chance that it could mutate to a degree that renders current vaccines less effective is more likely.

Excelsior Pass app
The Excelsior Pass app, which provides digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results. (Photo illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Yet those health concerns seem secondary for Republicans like Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, has not shied away from dramatic analogies when asked about vaccine passports. 

“Proposals like these smack of 1940s Nazi Germany. We must make every effort to keep America from becoming a ‘show your papers society,’” Cawthorn told Fox News. “The Constitution and our founding principles decry this type of totalitarianism.”

However, there are already statutes at the federal level that require people to be vaccinated against various infectious diseases in some cases. Under current federal law, for example, “a foreign national who applies for an immigrant visa abroad, or who seeks to adjust status to a permanent resident while in the United States,” must show proof of vaccination for mumps, measles, rubella, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, haemophilus influenzae type B and hepatitis B. 

In some ways, the concerns over vaccine passports mirror the reluctance by some Republicans to enforce social distancing restrictions or follow mask mandates. 

“What we’ve seen in this pandemic is that anything can be politicized, whether it’s a mask or vaccine, whatever it might be,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, told Business Insider. “But the truth is that vaccines are not only our best way out of this pandemic, they’re our only way out of this pandemic — because it’s clear that we can’t change our behavior.” 

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