Civil Liberties Advocates Warn COVID-19 Vaccine Passports Could Worsen Inequities

Many are resisting the idea of a COVID-19 "vaccine passport."
Many are resisting the idea of a COVID-19 "vaccine passport." Photo by Levi Ventura on Unsplash
In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a de facto political barometer, with those who oppose masks and economic closures typically aligning with the GOP. Now, vaccine passports are also derided by the country’s conservative base, but some nonpartisan experts have their own objections.

Texas Republicans are particularly wary of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 59% saying they’re reluctant to get one or would refuse it altogether, according to a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. And last week, Gov. Greg Abbott drove the point home when he issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies and political subdivisions from creating a vaccine passport requirement.

The term “vaccine passport” is used to describe a vaccination certificate, one that businesses and events may require upon entry. The White House has shied away from issuing a federal mandate, though, leaving it up to the states to decide for themselves. In addition to Texas, Florida has also attempted to ban them, according to ABC News.

Many medical experts support vaccine passports, saying they’re essential to keeping new COVID-19 variants at bay. Theoretically, passports could prevent uncontrolled spread in places where large numbers of people gather, such as concerts. Some colleges like St. Edward’s in Austin, a private university, are also requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for in-person fall enrollment.

But many rank-and-file Republicans have lashed out at the idea of vaccine passports, especially in Texas. Amarillo U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson echoed Abbott’s anti-passport rhetoric in a tweet on Friday.

“I’ll NEVER use a government mandated ‘vaccine passport’ and neither should you!” Jackson said.
Late last month, conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren also appeared on Fox & Friends to push back on the idea of mandatory vaccine passports.

“The vaccine passports will be the new masks, except we will still have to wear masks, so the lunacy is really unbelievable here,” she said, before launching into a diatribe about how she believes the pandemic has forced people to give up their rights. Though no expert of constitutional law, Lahren further warned that mandating passports may be unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is warning that vaccine passports could exacerbate existing inequities.

“We don’t want a vaccine passport that leads to our most vulnerable people getting further shut out of full participation in our society." – ACLU's Jay Stanley

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In certain contexts, the ACLU doesn’t oppose the idea of mandating proof of vaccination, said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. But the “devil is in the details,” and policymakers need to ensure that vaccine passport proposals aren’t exclusively digital.

In addition, such measures should be decentralized and open source, he said in an emailed statement. They also shouldn’t allow for tracking or storage of personal medical information in new databases.

Vaccine passport proposals may include digital certification; in some cases, a QR code could be used to gain entry into an event. But while the Pew Research Center found that 97% of Americans own a cellphone, only 85% say they own a smartphone. Stanley said not everyone has access to a smartphone, particularly those living in some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities.

Vaccine credentials could also have a “chilling effect” on communities with large immigrant and minority populations, Stanley said; in those areas, residents already face surveillance and over-policing.

Plus, some people with certain comorbidities can’t get vaccinated, and many others still don’t have a way to access the vaccine, he added.

“We don’t want a vaccine passport that leads to our most vulnerable people getting further shut out of full participation in our society,” Stanley said.

As of Sunday, 14.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Texas and 19.7% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to The Texas Tribune. That same day, the state’s health department reported 1,516 new confirmed cases and 26 deaths.

Dallas County saw 275 new COVID-19 cases and 10 additional deaths as of Saturday afternoon, County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a tweet.

“One of the best ways to help our community and the people that you love is to get vaccinated and encourage those who you have influence over to get vaccinated so that we can get COVID-19 behind us,” he said.
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter