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Debate Over ‘Vaccine Passports’ in New Jersey

by P. Kenneth Burns, WHYY

This story is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. Link to story:

A New Jersey lawmaker is proposing a bill that would prohibit the state, as well as “any political subdivision,” from requiring businesses to make customers prove they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, even though proof of vaccination is standard in education and certain professions.

Republican State Sen. Michael Testa said so-called “vaccine passports” are an invasion of privacy.

“I just don’t think I ever want to yield that much power to the government,” said Testa, who represents parts of Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland counties.

Citing New York state’s Excelsior Pass, a voluntary system launched in late March that allows residents to prove they’re either vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recently tested negative for the virus, Testa said such a system could become mandatory at some point.

“It’s certainly going to have a very coercive effect on those who are not in favor of getting the vaccine at this point,” he said.

Though the federal government has said it will not require people to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the country and will not issue a formal vaccine mandate, Testa’s legislation follows other GOP attempts across the country to ban the use of vaccine passports. Governors in Texas and Florida have issued prohibitions on their use. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went as far as prohibiting businesses from requiring customers to show proof of a vaccine. Polls have found Republicans are among those most likely to oppose getting vaccinated.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, expressed some reservations about the concept at a recent briefing on the virus.

“I’ve been open-minded to it, but I worry about the inequities that [vaccine passports] brings, frankly,” he said.

“Government in the right way—and we’ve seen a lot of this over the past year—the right kind of government is exactly what we need in a lot of situations,” Murphy added.

Some businesses, including cruise lines and companies like IBM, have already opted to develop vaccine credentials. Rutgers, Princeton, and Fairleigh Dickinson universities are all requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 when they return to campus this fall, with some medical and religious exemptions.

The idea of requiring proof of vaccination became politicized before the idea was vetted through a public health lens, according to Dr. Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Montclair State University.

“I think that the term started floating around in the absence of a lot of details about what it meant,” she said. “In that vacuum of details, people on whatever side of the debate you are on started filling in what they thought the vaccine passport would be or would do or how it would be used.”

Silvera noted the long history of showing proof of vaccinations in daily life, such as for attending school and traveling internationally, and for some job requirements.

“We might not be as aware of it because it hasn’t been in the context of a global pandemic where everything seems so important and so right now,” she added.

But comparing getting the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella to getting vaccinated for COVID is “apples and oranges,” according to Testa, who expressed doubt that the approved COVID-19 vaccines can prevent people from getting and spreading the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the vaccines are effective at protecting against COVID-19, and that getting vaccinated will also prevent serious illness from the virus. The CDC says the vaccines also help keep people with no symptoms from spreading COVID-19, according to early data.

The agency does caution that scientists are still learning “how well vaccines prevent you from spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 to others, even if you do not have symptoms.”