By Jeff Moore
Earlier this year, Governor Roy Cooper said his administration was exploring the development of a vaccine passport for residents of North Carolina.
“We want to be able to help people to be able to show others that they have gotten the vaccine because a lot of people are going to want that,” the governor said while touring a vaccination site in late March.
Just days later, in early April, New York launched its First in the Nation’ vaccine passport, the Excelsior Pass. California, likewise, launched a digital vaccine passport in June. Other states followed.
The debate surrounding vaccine passports is a sensitive one. Some view the passports as a useful tool to help mitigate the further spread of SARS-CoV2, helping to screen those employees, customers, or clientele deemed ‘safe’ by virtue of vaccination. Still, critics contend that embracing such a system blurs the lines of medical privacy and risks fomenting discrimination between the vaccinated and non-vaccinated that risks creating a two-tiered society.
The split exists largely along partisan lines. In May, six Republican members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the governor calling on him to reject the creation of vaccine passports, saying such a requirement would be a violation of residents’ constitutional rights.
Fast-forward a few months: residents of and visitors to New York and California are pressured to show their vaccine passports to participate in any number of activities; restaurants and bars, sports and entertainment venues, screen for vaccine credentials; and, in North Carolina, the Cooper administration has just quietly launched its very own state-certified ‘vaccine information card.’
What, exactly, could this mean for North Carolinians, both vaccinated and non-vaccinated going forward? The North Carolina vaccine passport is not mandatory. Notably, neither are those of New York or California; they are not required of every resident by the state. Yet critics worry that may amount to a distinction, without a difference.
The Frequently Asked Questions section of the NC vaccine passport page addresses several iterations of the question, ‘Am I required to show proof of vaccination for ‘X’?” The answer, consistently, is, yes, as long as they are not state entities.
“Employers, businesses, or universities can require proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, or a valid medical or religious exemption.”
Indeed, private institutions such as Elon University and Duke University are requiring students to present proof of vaccination to register for classes, as are many other private schools in North Carolina. However, the state’s public university system necessarily will not require proof for students to remain in good standing.
Will that distinction last? And what about public K-12 schools?
In recent reporting on a local school board vote to remove mask mandates for students and staff, making them optional instead despite the statewide mandate for K-12 schools, the Raleigh News & Observer notes, “Under the plan, students and staff are not required to show vaccination cards, while they can choose whether to wear masks at schools.”
It is unclear why such a requirement is mentioned. For one, no one under 12 years of age is currently eligible for a vaccine.
When it comes to issues like medical privacy and, especially, options for those who have obtained immunity through infection, Jon Sanders, Director of Regulatory Studies for the John Locke Foundation, has more questions than the FAQ page can answer.
“I think it’s an absolute joke that they’re trying to make people feel comfortable that the information is private, after establishing that it’s pretty much anybody’s business to ask,” Sanders said when asked for comment on the recently launched passport. “Furthermore, I would absolutely love for someone to ask why there’s no interest and no way to provide equally valid proof of natural immunity from prior infection, regardless of whether it was officially diagnosed.”
Requiring proof of vaccination to enter a business, event, or university classroom is justified on the basis that those individuals are unlikely to contribute to the further spread of COVID-19, and a state-certified vaccine passport helps facilitate that screening process. When it comes to the previously infected, however, no state-certified tools exist to prove what the National Institutes of Health describes as “durable” long-term immune protection from SARS-CoV2 for those that have recovered from a previous infection.
The COVID infected-and-recovered population is similarly absent in Governor Cooper’s continued push for higher vaccination rates as well. With new emphasis on rising cases of the ‘Delta Variant’ in North Carolina and around the nation, the push for vaccination has regained a sense of urgency. The governor visits vaccination sites nearly every week in an attempt to reach goals his administration set for total vaccination rates, regardless of passing the targeted date.
According to North Carolina’s COVID Dashboard from N.C. Department of Health and Human Service, as of publication, more than half of North Carolinians 12 years and up have received both vaccination doses. This includes nearly 85% of North Carolinians 65 years and older, the most vulnerable demographic.
Yet, despite the introduction of a cash lottery to incentivize more people to get vaccinated, rates in North Carolina have plateaued in recent weeks. Similar trends are apparent around the country, prompting those in national media to probe federal officials about whether they support local vaccine mandates.
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the president’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently voiced unequivocal support for local vaccination mandates. Pressed for President Joe Biden’s take in the wake of Fauci’s comment, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the president, too, would be supportive of local mandates.
“What Dr. Fauci was conveying is that there will be decisions made by local leaders — just like there will be decisions made by business leaders, by institutional leaders — on how they can keep their communities safe. And we support their right to make those decisions,” Psaki told reporters.
Clear limitations exist in issuing federal vaccine mandates, limitations often lamented by White House officials when discussing the issue. Similarly, Governor Cooper faces limits in issuing statewide mandates for vaccines, or vaccine passports. But if Cooper were to follow the president’s and Fauci’s lead in supporting local mandates, enforcement of said mandates would necessarily require the use of vaccine passports, which the State of North Carolina now offers in official form.