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Michigan GOP pushes to ban vaccine passports, university mandates

COVID vaccine
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has no current plans to require vaccine passports, but Republicans are moving to ban the practice among government agencies. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Oct. 19: Michigan business leaders ask President Biden to reconsider vaccine mandate
Aug. 17: Michigan GOP eyes limits to vaccine, mask rules. Health officials dismayed
Aug. 16: Michigan colleges set fall requirements for masks and COVID-19 vaccines

Aug. 3: Wayne State University issues vaccine mandate; Central Michigan requires masks

LANSING — Republicans in Michigan are joining conservative colleagues nationwide in a race to pre-emptively ban COVID-19 “vaccine passports,” citing concerns over privacy and liberty amid a mass inoculation effort.

New House legislation would prohibit the state or local governments from creating, issuing or incentivizing the kind of vaccine passports that Israel and other countries have used to ease travel restrictions for inoculated residents and provide special access to restricted sites like hotels, gyms, theaters and music venues.

A separate spending bill would prohibit any of the state’s 15 public universities from requiring students to prove vaccination for enrollment or in-person instruction next fall, an option some Michigan schools are considering.

Vaccination is a “personal choice,” and the state should not encourage “a “two-tiered system between… the haves and the have nots,” said sponsoring Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, who also raised data security concerns.

Related:

Her bill would define a vaccine passport 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 push comes as demand for COVID-19 vaccines appears to be waning in Michigan, complicating efforts to achieve “herd immunity” by inoculating 70 percent of adults, or about 5.7 million residents. 

As of Friday, about 33 percent of state adults were fully vaccinated, about 2.7 million, while about another 1 million had received the first dose, according to state data.

Passport advocates say that requiring proof of vaccination to participate in certain activities could encourage inoculation, which would in turn speed up both the public health and economic recovery from COVID-19. 

The new bills would not prohibit private entities from developing or utilizing vaccine passports, and that’s a good thing, said state Rep. David LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat. 

He argued private sector vaccine passports could provide Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration with a path to lifting capacity requirements for indoor dining at restaurants and sports venues, which Republicans want.

“You want to go to a Detroit Tigers game with no capacity limits? Just prove you’re vaccinated,” LaGrand said. “I think (vaccine passports) have the potential to open things up very quickly because you could eliminate capacity limits.”

University mandates

Neither the state nor federal government have announced plans for any sort of government-issued vaccine passport. 

But public universities preparing for more on-campus learning next fall are adopting new vaccine rules.

The University of Michigan announced Friday that it will require proof of vaccination for students to live on campus in dorms or other housing, an approach already adopted by Oakland University.

Elsewhere, California State University and the University of California plan to require all students and staff to be immunized against COVID-19 by fall  — but only if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives full approval to vaccines currently available through emergency use authorization.

It’s “befuddling” that House Republicans would remove that option for Michigan universities, said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

“For a legislative body to prevent a public institution from trying to protect its stakeholders — Michigan residents — is beyond comprehension,” he said.

“It’s incredible, over-the-top intervention that hamstrings these institutions’ ability to do what they think is the correct approach to ensuring the health and safety of their students.”

The student vaccine policies already announced at Michigan universities do not appear to conflict with the proposed House GOP language, however. None of the plans would prohibit non-vaccinated students from enrolling or taking in-person classes, which the annual budget bill seeks to ban. 

The University of Michigan-Dearborn, for instance, plans to require students to either show proof of vaccination or submit weekly negative COVID-19 test results. That would give students an alternative option to vaccination, albeit a more arduous one requiring weekly compliance.

Wayne State University, meanwhile, is using money to incentivize vaccinations: Students who upload proof of vaccination by May 7 will get $10 added to their student account for future use.

Other universities are conducting “informal surveys” of their students to try to gauge vaccine uptake rates and develop related policies, Hurley said. 

“I think most universities are in the category — and will remain in the category — of very strong recommendations, and providing students access to the vaccine,” Hurley said.

Rep. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, who chairs the House’s higher education budget committee, said Republicans are concerned about universities developing mandatory policies for vaccines.

Huizenga told Bridge Michigan he is personally encouraging constituents to get vaccinated, and has done so himself, but he does not think it should be required for students. 

“I think (vaccines are) good policy, but this is America, and you still have the right to choose,” he said. 

Universities, like private businesses, should also have the right to choose their own policies, said Dr. Rob Davidson, a west Michigan emergency room physician and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, a left-leaning advocacy organization.

“Particularly because we are putting all of these young people in these congregate living situations,” he said, referencing dorms. “It is just a recipe for massive outbreaks, particularly if folks are not behaving smartly, are not socially distancing, are not wearing masks.”

No state passport plans

Requiring proof of vaccination while some residents are still waiting for access would create “equity concerns,” said Dr. Farhan Bhatti, a family physician in Lansing. “The last thing we want is to exclude already vulnerable populations from being able to participate in civil society.”

But he argued supply appears to be catching up to demand, and lawmakers should focus on encouraging reluctant residents to schedule vaccine appointments rather than prohibiting potential public health response. 

Republican officials in states like Texas, Florida, Arizona and Utah have already banned vaccine passports, and conservatives in at least 10 other states are pushing to do the same.  

Whitmer, who is a Democrat, would have the power to veto the vaccine passport bill, but not the budget language specific to universities. Asked about the GOP legislation, a spokesperson said Monday the governor is focused on expanding access to the safe and effective vaccines. 

“Rather than working with us to promote vaccinations, it’s disappointing to see Republicans take up fringe issues, like forcing universities to pick between protecting students or receiving their annual funding,” said Whitmer press secretary Bobby Leddy.

“The Legislature needs to get politics out of this public health crisis because we all know that vaccines are the best way to protect Michiganders, eliminate COVID-19, and get back to normal as quickly as possible.”

Other spending bills proposed by House Republicans would prohibit state departments from requiring vaccinations for their government employees.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had preliminary discussions about a potential statewide vaccine passport system, a spokesperson told the Oakland Press earlier this month. 

But the department “is not currently exploring a vaccine passport concept” and instead remains focused on “vaccinating as many Michiganders as possible,” Lynn Sutfin told Bridge Michigan last week. 

Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration has already ruled out a national vaccine passport system but indicated it could provide guidance to private businesses wishing to explore the idea.

 “There will be no centralized, universal federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in early April. 

Nonetheless, anti-vaccination activists are urging the Michigan Legislature to ban vaccine passports. Organizers of an upcoming rally called them a “backdoor to forced vaccination” that would amount to “crimes against humanity.”

“I can see the libertarian argument against vaccine passports, (but)... I want everyone vaccinated because I don’t like variants, and variants come from infected people who are not vaccinated,” said LaGrand, the west Michigan Democrat who supports the concept. 

“I think everybody who’s not vaccinated has an obligation to the rest of us.”

Bridge Michigan reporter Ron French contributed

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