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Local lawmakers take stance against ‘vaccine passports’ in letter to governor, legislation

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — With a growing number of Americans receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, a discussion about “vaccine passports” has now emerged and spurred Republicans across the nation, including in North Carolina, to back bills aimed at prohibiting a mandate.

Since the end of March, both Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, have said they’re looking into ways to create a system that would allow North Carolinians to access their vaccination information. Cooper has not yet directly stated whether the state would move forward with any mandate for a “vaccine passport.”

President Joe Biden has also said the federal government has no plans to implement such a requirement as public health powers are reserved to the states.

A number of states, such as Texas and Florida, have gone as far as enacting executive orders banning the use in their states, though it’s unclear if a governor alone has authority over the use of vaccine passports in private businesses.

Rowan County’s Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, questions the constitutionality of such a program. He is backing House Bill 558, filed by Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican, which would make it unlawful for the state and its agencies to mandate vaccinations against COVID-19, require proof of vaccination to travel or use public property or mandate forced participation in a vaccination tracking system.

The bill also outlines civil remedies one can take against an agency that requires or denies issuance of a license in health care due to one’s decision not to receive the vaccine, and includes civil and criminal immunity to anyone who refuses to receive the shot.

The bill also enacts a statute that would grant citizens the private right to determine whether they or their children will receive a vaccine. Further, colleges, K-12 schools and childcare facilities — all agencies that typically require a number of vaccinations for admission — would be prohibited from questioning a person on their vaccination status as a condition of attendance. Similarly, occupational licensing boards, hospitals and nursing homes would be prohibited to refuse licenses, treatment or admittance based on a vaccination status.

Warren told the Post the concept of requiring the vaccine for citizens to gain access to their constitutional rights is “inherently wrong and likely unconstitutional.”

“If such a program were to be implemented, it would create a segregation of citizens as well as violating privacy rights and HIPAA compliance laws,” he said.

Warren said there are a number of people religiously opposed to taking the vaccine, and that submitting to any medical procedure is a matter of individual choice.

Following Cooper’s comments about the creation of a statewide system, N.C. House Republicans last week signed a letter to the governor signaling their disapproval of creating “a vaccine passport or any other form of government-required identifications to show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations” due to concerns of privacy.

“North Carolinians should not be required to carry some sort of proof of vaccination to go about their daily lives,” the letter stated. “We have heard from countless constituents who have contacted us to express their strong opposition and grave concerns regarding the idea of requiring proof of vaccinations.”

Reps. Wayne Sasser, Julia Howard and Warren all signed the letter. Howard could not be reached for comment by time of publication.

“By signing the letter to the governor or supporting H.B. 558, I am not encouraging or discouraging anyone’s decision in regards to getting a vaccination or not,” Warren said. “I am taking a stand to protect the rights of everyone I represent to make their own personal decisions in this regard.”

Warren said he’s not against the government keeping a tabulation of the number of vaccinations given along with demographic information meant to help determine the efficacy of the vaccine and the nation’s approach to herd immunity, but is opposed to any governmental tracking of who received the vaccination.

Sasser, a pharmacist and Republican representing Rowan and Stanly counties, said the letter was intended to just inform the governor that lawmakers “want to give people personal liberties.” He added that such a measure “crosses a line” into the potential of infringing on citizens’ rights.

But H.B. 558, he said, “crosses the line the other way” by prohibiting something the governor is likely legally able to do.

Additionally, though he’s unaware of any hospitals requiring it at this time, he added that it’s common practice for health care systems to require certain vaccinations for its employees, and is something he can justify.

But he’s not sure at this time whether schools will require the vaccinations or if they should due to the CDC’s findings that the rate of transmission is low among school-aged children, and thus, isn’t as applicable.

“Let’s be reasonable and rational,” he said. “Hopefully, grandma’s had the vaccine, or it’s on her for not getting it.”

Warren told the Post he’s opposed to schools and hospitals requiring vaccination for admission or employment at this time as “much is still unknown” about the vaccine and because of its “temporary” emergency authorization.

Both Sasser, 71, and his wife contracted COVID-19 in the fall and have since received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccination. He wants all North Carolinians to treat the virus seriously, but says he values the rights of each individual to their personal health decisions as well.

“I want everyone to get the vaccine but I’m not going to be the Gestapo that makes them get it,” he said. “I think it’s a personal choice. We’re kind of building this airplane as we fly it.”

He added people may be hesitant, but there’s no medical-related reason why anyone 60 years old or older should refuse to take it.

“If you’re going to get the vaccine, you’ve gotten the vaccine by now,” he said. “And there’s still opportunity to get one.”

Sasser said he also doesn’t think an elected leader’s decision to take or not take the vaccine has much influence on the general public.

But Sasser is unsure such an idea would be pursued by the governor now as he “seems to be backing off” on restrictions implemented via executive order throughout the pandemic. Last week, Cooper announced he plans to lift all mandates on social distancing and gathering limits by June 1 if current metrics remain stable and vaccination rates continue to rise. Additionally, the statewide mask mandate could be lifted once two-thirds of North Carolinians receive at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

As of Friday, the state health department reports that 47.7% of North Carolinians have now received the first dose.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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