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States move to ban 'vaccine passports'

As Americans figure out what post-pandemic life will look like, some states are taking steps to ensure that proof of vaccination ― or so-called “vaccine passports” ― won’t be part of it.

On Tuesday, Missouri became the latest state to restrict when its citizens could be asked to show they were vaccinated for COVID-19. At least fifteen other states have limited or banned vaccine passports via legislation or governors’ executive orders. Some of the measures prevent local governments from issuing or requiring vaccine credentials, while others also discourage businesses from doing so. At least one state, Arizona, made an exception for healthcare providers.

Supporters say the rules, championed mostly by Republicans, protect individuals’ privacy and promote economic recovery.

In Texas, the new vaccine passport ban protects “individuals’ private medical information from the intrusive governmental and business-led mandates,” said the law’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, in a press release. “This legislation is a great example of striking a balance between our public health priorities, civil liberties, and economic freedoms.”

But opponents say the rules could harm public health and make a return to normalcy difficult for concert venues, universities and other entities hoping to require vaccination to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks. Cruise lines in particular have worried aloud about how they will comply with both federal health guidance and Florida’s vaccine passport ban.

It’s unclear if the push to prohibit vaccine passports across states was coordinated. The wording in many of the laws and orders differed. But anti-vaccine-passport laws in Texas and Alabama, as well as a bill in Missouri and an executive order in Florida, used similar language, a review by the Center for Public Integrity found.

Several lawmakers behind those measures did not immediately respond to inquiries related to how they were drafted, but a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said no outside groups were involved in writing his executive order.

Advocacy groups often use what’s known as “model legislation” to blanket states with copy-paste laws. An award-winning 2019 investigation by Public Integrity, USA Today and the Arizona Republic found this tactic was common in statehouses across the nation.

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The National Vaccine Information Center, a nonprofit that pushes for exemptions to immunization mandates and spreads misinformation about vaccines, thanked its network of volunteers for their support of Alabama’s vaccine passport ban. “Your hard work paid off,” it said.

The group took positions on and issued “action alerts” to volunteers about vaccine passport bills in multiple states, director of advocacy Dawn Richardson said in an email. 

States witnessed several coronavirus-related political campaigns from right-wing groups this spring. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, a frequent source of model legislation, promoted limits on local health officials’ emergency powers. A group known as America’s Frontline Doctors ― most famous for cheerleading hydroxychloroquine and for its member who warned about sex with demonsbacked a “Vaccine Bill of Rights” in various states. The Informed Consent Action Network, founded by misinformation peddler Del Bigtree, worked to issue legal challenges to vaccine requirements.

“It’s all very concerning,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “If these decisions are made now just based on the fact that people didn’t like the public health orders that were put in place during a pandemic, what is going to happen when these laws are passed and we have another public health emergency?”

Private companies are currently developing apps that could prove vaccination status, but Hawaii, New York and Oregon are so far the only states to endorse vaccine passports in some form. The Biden administration has said the federal government would not mandate vaccines or set up a national credentialing system.

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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At least sixteen states have limited or banned vaccine passports via legislation or governors’ executive orders.