Abortion, Nazi conspiracies derail Michigan GOP hearing on vaccine passports
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LANSING — A hearing to pre-emptively ban governmental “vaccine passports” in Michigan devolved into the realm of conspiracy theory Wednesday, as activists welcomed by House Republicans spread doomsday claims about the national COVID-19 inoculation effort.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is not planning to develop or utilize a vaccine passport system in Michigan, but author and activist Naomi Wolf told lawmakers that New York residents are being “discriminated against already” because of a voluntary Excelsior Pass system developed by the state government there.
Wolf compared vaccine passport systems unveiled in New York and Israel to population separtion efforts in Nazi Germany. She suggested without evidence that smartphone apps developed by the government could be tweaked with artificial intelligence to read a person’s social media commentary and punish people for their personal politics.
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“If you gather after this hearing with your friends in a bar to discuss opposition to the vaccine passport, your app will know who you’re meeting with because you’ll have to swipe a QR code,” Wolf warned.
The New York system allows participating businesses to verify the vaccination or testing status of would-be customers before entry. The Mets and Yankees, for instance, are creating special sections for vaccinated fans that will be exempt from social distancing or capacity requirements in other parts of their baseball stadiums.
Other passport opponents who testified Thursday raised similar claims.
State Board of Education member Nikki Snyder blasted Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines as “an experiment” on the public.
Genevieve Marnon of Right to Life of Michigan warned that manufacturers “all exploit aborted babies in one fashion or another” because they used common fetal cell lines to develop or test the shots.
Public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say COVID-19 vaccines are both safe and effective. They have not yet been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration but are administered under “emergency use authorization” sought by former President Donald Trump.
House Republicans, who welcomed Wolf to the Oversight Committee hearing, did not question myriad claims made by her or other anti-vaccination activists.
Chair Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said he plans to put the passport legislation up for a vote next week, saying it will prevent the government from “creating two tiers of citizens based on personal medical decisions.”
Democrats acknowledged legitimate privacy concerns associated with vaccine passport systems that could be used to store personal health information, but state Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos, said it was “appalling and abhorrent” for activists to compare COVID-19 vaccination efforts to atrocities like the Holocaust.
Wolf is an author who rose to fame in the 1990s as a feminist leader, author of “The Beauty Myth” and adviser to Democratic presidential campaigns. Over the past decade, however, she has been criticized for spreading conspiracy theories, a characterization she has denied.
Recently, Wolf accused Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a prominent vaccine advocate and research funder, of ushering in a “bio-security state.” In a since-deleted tweet from February, she claimed to have overheard an Apple employee boasting about "new tech to deliver vaccines w nanopatticles (sic) that let you travel back in time."
Other “experts” who testified Thursday included James Lyons-Weiler, a former University of Pittsburgh researcher who has inflated risk associated with the Moderna vaccine. Earlier this week in west Michigan, he told activists a “cabal” is manipulating the public to accept vaccines and falsely claimed "children don't get COVID-19.”
Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy called Thursday’s hearing a waste of time and taxpayer dollars and a “distraction” as the state encourages residents to take “safe and effective” COVID-19 vaccines.
“The state has been very clear that they’re not currently exploring a vaccine passport concept,” Leddy said in a statement. “Instead of working with us to increase vaccinations across our state, Republicans would rather continue a circus and listen to an unaccredited conspiracy theorist.”
The pace of inoculations in Michigan has waned this month as supply appears to be outweighing demand despite a new Whitmer administration plan that seeks to incentivize vaccinations by easing lifting remaining COVID-19 restrictions based on the number of residents who have received at least one dose.
House Bill 4667, as introduced, would prohibit the state and local governments in Michigan from producing, issuing or contracting for development of a vaccine passport, defined as any “written or electronic documentation for the purposes of certifying that an individual has received a vaccination for or is immunized against COVID-19.”
The legislation would also prohibit any governmental attempt to “incentive” usage of a vaccine passport.
“It is every individuals’ right to not obtain the vaccine, and their daily life should not be impacted by their decision,” said sponsoring state Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine.
Israel and other countries have used vaccine passports to ease travel restrictions for inoculated residents and provide special access to restricted sites like hotels, gyms, theaters and music venues.
Allor told colleagues she is not getting a COVID-19 vaccine because pre-existing health conditions could make it dangerous for her to do so. She questioned whether a potential vaccine passport system could be used to prohibit her from attending her grandchildren’s school events or taking them to a Detroit Tigers game.
“This is frightening,” she said. “In fact, it is terrifying.”
Allor also argued potential vaccine passport phone apps would pose a “very real threat” to individual medical privacy, noting hackers have breached records maintained by private health providers.
Brixie, a Democrat, warned that language in Allor’s vaccine passport legislation was so broad it could prohibit local health departments from issuing CDC vaccination cards. But that is not the intent, Allor responded, signaling the bill could be amended for clarification before the expected panel vote next week.
Allor’s proposal is specific to government agencies, but some legislators want to go further and also limit vaccine passport use in the private sector.
State Rep. Steve Carra, a Three Rivers Republican who is running for Congress and has personally declined vaccination, introduced a bill Wednesday that would also prohibit Michigan businesses from "discriminating" against employees based on their vaccination status, subjecting owners to fines if they utilize vaccine passport systems.
The House GOP is also using the budget process to try to bar universities from making vaccination a requirement for enrollment or in-person instruction. No universities have done so, but some have adopted new rules to encourage vaccination. The University of Michigan and Oakland University, for instance, will require proof of vaccination for students to live on campus in dorms or other housing.
State Rep. David LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat who supports the concept of vaccine passports, argued the Legislature should not be attempting to ban something that does not yet exist in Michigan. That would be like passing a bill to prevent moving the state Capitol to the bottom of Lake Michigan, he said
“I wouldn’t want to have to scuba dive to go to work,” LaGrand joked. “There's an infinite number of things we could ban preemptively, but our job frankly is to take action and set policy on things that are actively under consideration."
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