White House under increasing pressure on vaccine passports, but it’s complicated

Jun 28, 2021

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Despite growing pressure on the Biden administration from some airlines and health experts to implement a federally mandated vaccine passport for both travel and daily use, the White House so far has decided against it.

The Department of Homeland Security insists there will be no “federal mandate” for vaccine passports. Instead, the Biden Administration is leaving the decision up to the private sector and individual states.

In a press briefing on May 17, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the federal government would not be involved in issuing a standard vaccine passport. However last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the federal government would encourage businesses to use their own versions.

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“If a company, a business wants to take steps to keep their workers and their passengers safe, I would think that, from a government perspective, we want to do everything we can to encourage that,” Buttigieg told local reporters in Dallas. “And that’s certainly our view at the federal level.”

The Transportation Department did not respond to a request for comment at the time of this article.

Related: Some states are rolling out vaccine passports — here’s what you need to know

The prospect of a federally mandated vaccine passport led 16 Republican-controlled states to prohibit disclosure of vaccine status via vaccine passport requirements. Those states have either passed legislation or used executive orders to ban the use of the passports. Those states include Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Montana, Alaska, Missouri, South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming.

In Utah, for example, the state legislature implemented a partial ban to allow private businesses the option to require local customers to certify vaccination for entry, along with a law in April that blocks the government from requiring residents to be vaccinated.

Related: Secretary of State says US borders will remain closed for EU citizens

Some of these Republican state legislatures have taken it a step further by applying their bill provisions to exclude private businesses from even allowing the use of vaccine passports to screen patrons. Florida is one example where the state says cruise ships can’t use vaccine passports to allow boarding ships in the state.

On April 2, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was among the first governors to issue an executive order prohibiting state government entities or businesses from requiring anything resembling “vaccine passports, vaccine passes or other standardized documentation” to verify an individual’s COVID-19 vaccinations status, which was translated into a bill in May. Similar bills are effective in Alabama, Iowa, North Dakota and Texas.

Hawaii and New York maintain their own digital passport of sorts to serve as proof-of-vaccination. On May 11, Gov. David Ige rolled out the Aloha State’s “Safe Travels” system and recently announced that as of July 8, vaccinated travelers visiting Hawaii will no longer be required to get a test or quarantine.

Despite these anti-vaccine passport efforts by some GOP states, some airline groups, including the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, are urging the White House to standardize a digital vaccine certificate.

Related: Now that Americans can go to Europe, here’s what we know about the EU’s ‘vaccine passports’

“We fully support the federal government creating standardized guidelines for a digital vaccine certificate, but it should be specific to COVID-19, and not mandatory to travel due to concerns about equity,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the AFA, a union representing flight attendants in the U.S.

As TPG previously reported, the entire European Union is expected to be using its Digital COVID Certificate by July 1 to allow EU travelers to provide digital proof of vaccination against COVID-19, as well as a negative test result or previous history of COVID-19. Thus far, Americans have not yet been granted access to this platform, although the EU has been in talks with the U.S. government about allowing Americans to access a version of the digital passport.

But not all those with stakes in the decision-making process agree on the role the government should play.

“This should not be done at the governmental level. It will probably result in enormous backlash from the community and strengthen resistance to getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association in an email interview with TPG. “We should focus on making people vaccine confident and trusting so they get the vaccine willingly. Vaccinations are safe and effective and the best way we have to prevent them from the risk of getting sick and potentially dying.”

Related: Cruise ship contact tracing: How the world’s major lines are tracking COVID-19 exposure

For now, it seems that the administration’s hands-off approach will continue. When asked if we should expect to see passengers in masks on planes in the fall, Buttigieg plans to leave that decision in the hands of science.

“That is really driven by the science and driven by public health,” he said last week.

Featured image by Thiago Prudencio/SOPA Images/LightRocket.

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