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Josh Bergeron: Vaccine passports next up in partisan debates

First it was masks. Vaccines came next. Now, people are finding ways to stake out partisan positions on so-called vaccine passports.

A vaccine passport may take many forms. It could be an app on your phone, a website portal or a physical document, but North Carolina Republicans are making it clear they don’t like them now and won’t like them in the future. A delegation of North Carolina Congress members wrote to Gov. Roy Cooper saying as much.

“We believe this policy is a vast overreach that will have fear reaching implications on our citizens’ constitutional liberties. We ask that you refrain from instituting a vaccine passport program in North Carolina,” wrote the six Congress members.

Rep. Dan Bishop, a Republican whose 9th Congressional District hugs counties along the North Carolina-South Carolina border, led the delegation. Also on the letter were Reps. Ted Budd, Rowan County’s congressman, and Richard Hudson, whose 8th District used to cover parts of Rowan County. In what is clearly an attempt to also gather contact information for local voters for his campaign, Budd also is soliciting people to sign up to tell Cooper to “reject any effort to mandate vaccine passports and that you oppose efforts by third parties which would require these documents.”

“Mandating a vaccine passport will signal to North Carolinians that their right to participate in the economic life of our state and nation is in jeopardy. There is no circumstance under which government may infringe upon Americans’ constitutional liberties, not even a global pandemic,” the congressional letter stated. “Any facilitation from the federal or state government in providing or encouraging vaccine passports will politicize vaccination efforts.”

Reps. Wayne Sasser, Harry Warren and Julia Howard — all of whom represent parts of the county — signed onto another missive that called on Cooper to oppose the creation of government proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Putting aside the fact that vaccines have long passed the point of politicization, discussion about new vaccine passports is still hypothetical in North Carolina. Gov. Cooper has talked about proof of vaccinations without committing to specific plans. The Biden administration has backed away from the idea entirely, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki saying, “The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.” So far, New York state is the only government to implement a vaccine passport, calling its system The Excelsior Pass.

The focus on the government creating a vaccine passport ignores the possibility that private entities may ask for proof of vaccinations. Comments about the “right to participate in the economic life” are blind to the fact that private businesses can decide if they want to take additional steps to protect the safety of their customers. Just as many businesses required customers to wear masks, they may ask customers to provide proof of vaccinations. While there are some restrictions about who businesses can refuse to serve, they do not include vaccination status or whether someone wears a face covering.

People worried about vaccine passports, which almost certainly won’t be called that to avoid polarization, probably won’t need them to do things like buy groceries, go to an outdoor event or eat at a restaurant. Proof of a vaccination might be required for flights, especially ones headed to another country.

There is a reasonable case that not creating a centralized system could lead to a patchwork method of proving you’ve been vaccinated. A centralized vaccine passport system, however, poses significant concerns for privacy, particularly if there’s a security breach. Public health officials already have faced challenges in getting vaccinations to the marginalized. Standardized vaccine passports will not be any easier.

This is a case where empty partisan politics as usual is not helpful. People may not want to provide proof, especially if they don’t intend on being vaccinated for COVID-19, but some private businesses will  require it. Public and private colleges are already doing it.

Maybe the solution has been in front of us all along — the CDC’s COVID-19 vaccination record card.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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