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Politicization of 'vaccine passports' could aggravate GOP hesitancy, experts warn

Influential right-wing figures are "applying culture war logic to the slow process of getting back to normal from Covid," one conservative media expert said.
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Growing conservative backlash to the idea of "vaccine passports" — proposed by some private-sector industries to promote a safer environment as states begin to ease coronavirus restrictions — could make Republicans even less likely to get their shots, experts warned.

Last month, multiple polls found that about half of Republicans or those who identified as having voted for former President Donald Trump either want to wait and see before getting vaccinated or say they will never get the shots. So-called vaccine hesitancy among Republicans could stand in the way of the U.S.'s ultimately achieving herd immunity, which scientists estimate will be reached when 70 percent to 85 percent of the population has Covid-19 antibodies.

"The idea of a vaccine passport has become politicized quickly, making it a wedge separating people rather than a bridge to our goal of increasing vaccination," said epidemiologist Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which has partnered with a longtime Republican pollster to study and create pro-vaccination messaging aimed at conservatives.

Vaccine hesitancy among the partisan group has remained steady even as prominent Republicans have begun to directly encourage vaccinations.

Last month, Trump said the vaccines were "safe" and effective, telling Fox News: "I would recommend it, and I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday: "I want to say to everyone we need to take this vaccine. These reservations need to be put aside."

The vaccine passport debate could further complicate what Castrucci said was the "most urgent goal": getting everyone vaccinated. For more than a week, the concept has come under intense scrutiny on some of Fox News' most popular programs and from politicos and pundits on the right.

Conservatives have criticized such passports, as they did earlier government restrictions, like lockdowns and mask mandates, as potential government overreach and a violation of patient privacy — a point the American Civil Liberties Union has echoed.

Biden administration officials have been careful to stress that the government will not mandate such passports, nor will it maintain a federal database. Discussions about implementing passports are still at an early stage.

A.J. Bauer, an assistant professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama who studies the conservative media ecosystem, said the passport debate is the latest instance of "applying culture war logic to the slow process of getting back to normal from Covid" by influential figures on the right.

Ric Grenell, who was acting director of national intelligence in the Trump administration, and Josh Mandel, a Republican candidate for the Senate in Ohio, compared the idea to Nazism. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said any company requiring one for entry would be promoting "corporate communism."

"If you’re a republican in office and you’re not vocally and aggressively opposing 'vaccine passports' it may be time to find another career," Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted Tuesday.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis — considered a potential 2024 Republican presidential front-runner — signed an executive order Friday to curtail the use of such passports, while Republican legislators in Pennsylvania and Ohio pushed against using them, saying they would infringe on people's civil rights. On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, joined DeSantis in signing a similar order prohibiting "government-mandated vaccine passports."

Lawrence Gostin, director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told NBC News in an email that the executive orders are unlikely to have much impact.

"Governors have no power to prohibit cities or counties from issuing passports or banning the private sector," he said. "But if the Florida or other state legislature passed a law, it could preempt local governments from issuing passports."

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said vaccine passports are another issue that allows Republicans to draw contrasts with Democrats who they believe have gone too far with pandemic restrictions.

"The challenge is that the vaccination campaign requires clear and consistent messaging," Curbelo said. "Encouraging the population to get vaccinated while opposing requirement of proof makes for some muddled messaging, but governors like [DeSantis] think they can thread the needle."

Bauer said that the backlash over vaccine passports — which would include people's vaccination records — is in line with long-standing skepticism over government-run identification systems and that it is partly attributable to the word "passport."

"'Passport,' you think about it in terms of limitations to movement," he said. "Part of the conservative or backlash to the shutdowns and masking orders and whatever has been about inhibiting their freedom of movement or freedom to go out and go to a bar or go to a sports game or whatever they want to do."

The form of such a passport system is still in flux. The Biden administration has already said it will not build a national vaccine app, and President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Politico on Monday that the federal government will not mandate vaccine passports for businesses or travelers.

"Development of a vaccine passport, or whatever you want to call it, will be driven by the private sector," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week, noting that the administration does plan to provide recommendations for digital vaccination certificates so there are applicable standards nationwide.

Such passports, which have been under consideration by the private sector for months, could be scannable QR codes people could pull up on their phones or simpler green check marks or red X's. Digital vaccination cards are already in use In Israel, and European Union leaders have announced the development of a similar program.

Paul Mango, who was a top official in Trump's Department of Health and Human Services and with Operation Warp Speed, saidanyone trying such an initiative would have to grapple with privacy issues and other questions, such as what a passport system would mean for children not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

"The practical considerations are such that I do not believe we would benefit much from such an initiative," he said.

Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine advisory committee, said he is a fan of the passport idea because passports would allow for peace of mind at bars or restaurants. But, he said, "I think that could never happen in this country" — even though he noted that the U.S. has other "vaccine mandates," including those for school-age children and for people who travel to countries where dangerous illnesses are present.

"Somehow, a country that's founded on individual rights and freedoms, we don't think collectively," he said. "We think it's our right to catch and transmit an infection, even though it's not."