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Two million people have signed up for New York state digital vaccine passport called the Excelsior Pass. (June 8) AP Domestic

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When Gov. Phil Murphy introduced a new COVID vaccination app called Docket this week, he made sure first to say what it isn’t intended to be before actually explaining its purpose.

"To be absolutely clear, this is not a passport," he said at a briefing Monday. "Docket is intended to solely give residents easy access to their COVID vaccination record, especially if their vaccination card has been damaged or lost."

But experts say the app is indeed a vaccine passport — and so is the standard Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID vaccination card that Bruce Springsteen and Foo Fighters required from fans to enter their shows last month.

"It becomes a passport when a proprietor decides it does," said Robert Field, a professor of law and health policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "It's that simple." 

Vaccine passports are partisan issue

The concept behind vaccine passports — proof of vaccination to gain entry somewhere — is far from new. For a century, nearly every school in the U.S. has been requiring proof of vaccinations for students to enroll. Dozens of countries across the globe require a "Yellow Fever Card" to enter their borders.

But in an election year, Murphy is tiptoeing around a politically charged issue in which proof of vaccination has become just as much a dividing line as mask-wearing and vaccinations themselves. 

That divide has pretty much split along party lines, with red states passing legislation banning any vaccine passports and some blue states adopting them, according to a review of all 50 state policies by the magazine Becker's Health IT.

For instance, in March, New York was the first state to introduce a vaccine passport — the Excelsior Pass has been downloaded 2 million times. On the flip side, Florida passed a law prohibiting vaccine passports from "discriminating" against customers at such venues as cruise ships — and one cruise line is suing to overturn the law.

In New Jersey, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation in the spring to ban vaccine passports, but the measures have little chance of making their way through the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly.

The announcement of the Docket app this week renewed those calls.

“We need to be vigilant to ensure this app doesn’t suddenly morph into a vaccine passport that people are forced to display everywhere they go," said state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cape May, who has said he would not get vaccinated.

Murphy said Monday that he did not hold a "hell no" position on vaccine passports. He said he doesn't want to discriminate against minorities who have not gotten shots at the same rate as white residents.

"While I'm open-minded, I don't think the timing is right," he said of passports. 

But is the docket app a vaccine passport?

Michael Seavers, an expert in health care technology at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, said that with the app, Murphy has already introduced a passport — whether he calls it that or not.

"Even though Governor Murphy may be claiming it is not a vaccine passport, you have to look at why a person would put their vaccine information on an app," Seavers said. "The reason? Entry into a place that requires that a person is vaccinated for COVID-19."

The app is "functionally no different" from the standard CDC card proving a person is vaccinated, Field said.

Foo Fighters essentially asked for a vaccine passport last month when they held the first major concert in New York since the pandemic began. So did Bruce Springsteen when he required proof of vaccination from all attendees to his one-man show that ushered in Broadway's return.

Both events featured dozens of anti-vaccination advocates who demonstrated outside the venues for "segregating" the vaccinated from unvaccinated. 

Field said America has been doing just that for more than a century by insisting children get vaccinated to attend schools.

A COVID vaccination passport, he said, is "the same concept applied to a broader group of people."

Personal freedom vs. societal benefit

While some argue such passports are an infringement on personal freedom, the government has the ability — and a long track record — to do just that for when it considers there's a larger societal benefit at stake, whether it's drafting soldiers at a time of war or enforcing speed limits. 

Seavers said a vaccine passport creates other problems of inequality, such as those who cannot get the shots for medical reasons or those who don't have a smartphone to use an app. 

New Jersey Republicans have tried to advance the notion that a passport discriminates.

“In a free society that respects individual rights, we believe health decisions should be a personal, private choice that a patient doesn’t have to discuss with anyone but their doctor," state Sen. Jim Holzapfel, R-Ocean, said in April when he introduced a bill banning the passports.

Field said that isn't the case. "Your vaccination status is not immutable," he said. "It's a choice, and choices have consequences."

Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon 

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