Rep. Jim Walsh introduced a bill this week to prohibit the use of so-called “vaccine passports,” controversial systems that prove individuals are vaccinated against COVID-19.
And although Walsh, R-Aberdeeen, says the bill has no chance in the current legislative session — and the state hasn’t unveiled any plans for vaccine passports — the conservative lawmaker’s announcement proved to be a lightning rod online.
The idea, he proclaimed in a video in front of the Capitol, isn’t to pass it this session, but to generate “grassroots support” for the next legislative session.
According to Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, the bill is unlikely to garner bipartisan support. Currently, the bill has 20 co-sponsors, all Republicans.
“We aren’t stepping in telling the private sector what to do unless it’s clear that some standards need to be met,” Cody told The (Centralia) Chronicle in an email. “House Democrats have been focusing on ensuring access to the vaccine, boosting our public health system, and ensuring an equitable economic recovery for our small businesses. That is why we are not entertaining bills that either ban or mandate vaccines or passports.”
Although they remain controversial, some countries have already implemented vaccine passports. In Israel, for example, a digital or physical “green pass” is awarded to individuals who are fully vaccinated, and can be used to access places like concert venues or restaurants. New York has rolled out its own smartphone-based “Excelsior Pass.”
On a federal level, the White House has said they would not be considering any such system. Press secretary Jen Psaki told journalists that the administration was concerned with Americans’ privacy rights, according to news reports. And statewide, there are no immediate plans for such a system, according to a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee.
Instead — as Cody noted — state officials are focusing on rolling out the vaccine and fighting vaccine hesitancy so that activities become safer for the general public.
“We want to remind everybody: Don’t hesitate. Vaccinate,” State Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said in a media briefing this week.
The “three legged stool,” he said, includes vaccine supply, logistical capabilities and demand.
“Ultimately, this is why we’re concerned about making sure there’s strong vaccine confidence. So that when people are eligible, that they are availing themselves to appointments,” he added.
According to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine director, SheAnne Allen, the Department of Health is working on campaigns to address vaccine hesitancy. Locally, Centralia Superintendent Dr. Lisa Grant also reported that the district is working to set up an event where local pediatricians can answer local families’ questions about the vaccine.
Still, Walsh’s bill may have struck a chord with constituents, with his online post about the proposal garnering hundreds of responses. The bill aligns with other states’ restrictions of vaccine passports. Texas and Florida, for example, have already placed similar legislation.
Under Walsh’s bill, a “government entity” could not require proof of inoculation in admitting Washingtonians into a public place, defined in the bill as including stores, restaurants and bars.
In a Facebook video, Walsh added: “Now, a private landowner, a private business may be able to do their own thing, make their own requirements. But anywhere that’s a public place, and that include many privately-owned facilities open to the general public, they cannot require a vaccine passport.”