Governor Charlie Baker was clear when reporters asked him if state officials plan to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine passport for residents inoculated against the virus, an initiative being tried in New York and other states, and even some countries to give vaccinated people more freedom to travel, shop, and go to work.
“No, no, no,” Baker said during a press briefing Wednesday. “I want to vaccinate people. Let’s get people vaccinated. I think having a conversation about creating a barrier before people have even had an opportunity to be eligible to be vaccinated, let’s focus on getting people vaccinated.”
Baker didn’t elaborate on how he felt a vaccine passport would create a barrier to getting vaccinated in the first place. Baker’s office declined to further clarify his remarks on Thursday.
While Baker was cool to the idea, other Republican governors are downright hostile.
Texas Governor Gregg Abbott said Tuesday that he had issued an executive order that prohibits government-mandated vaccine passports. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said on Twitter that he does “not and will not support any kind of state-mandated vaccine passport.”
New Hampshire Governor John Sununu told The Washington Post in a live interview on Tuesday the vaccines are still “experimental” and said it doesn’t make sense to mandate vaccinations or proof of vaccination.
“As soon as you get into the vaccine passport, the have and the have nots, that type of disparity, you’re going to create a lot of problems in society, frankly, who — ‘Let me see your vaccine card to get into here,’ and what not. So, I’m very hesitant about any of that,” Sununu said.
Baker’s comments, made during a COVID-19 briefing, followed a letter that state Senator Barry Finegold and state Representative Linda Dean Campbell sent to the governor and President Biden urging them to work to develop “a robust framework for implementing vaccine verification systems, or ‘vaccine passes.’”
“We have to look ahead to the future. Very soon, most people in the United States will have been vaccinated, and we will start to return to a new normal,” the lawmakers wrote. “Vaccines will not completely eradicate COVID-19 for the time being, but vaccine passes will allow us to live with the virus without having to impose costly lockdowns. People will feel more comfortable getting on airplanes or going to sports arenas if they know others there have been vaccinated as well. By distributing vaccine passes, we can re-open our economy more fully without compromising public health.”
The legislators noted that other countries have “taken the lead” on vaccine passports.
“Israel has created a Green Pass that allows vaccinated people to access indoor venues, and the European Union is pushing ahead with plans to distribute a Digital Green Certificate for travel across Europe,” the letter said. “South Korea and other countries are pursuing similar policies. The basic concept of a vaccine pass is not entirely new: it has long been standard practice to have to display proof of certain vaccinations before entering countries.”
And time, Campbell and Finegold wrote, is of the essence.
“We need to confront this issue now,” they wrote. “We need standards now. At the start of the pandemic, there was a clear lack of coordination and communication between the federal government and states. In the absence of a federal vaccine pass, state policymakers deserve federal guidance and support as they implement vaccine passes of their own. In that vein, we have to avoid creating a patchwork of different systems in different states.”
Critics of the idea have raised issues of equity and privacy, and the potential headaches of having to deal with a hodge-podge system of different passports accepted in different jurisdictions.
Such passports already are in use in New York City, at Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center. Since late February, hundreds of fans attending Brooklyn Nets or New York Rangers games have displayed a smartphone app or a printed QR code that verified either they’d been vaccinated or had tested negative for the coronavirus within the previous 72 hours.
Campbell and Finegold referenced the New York arena experiment in their letter.
“New York has raced ahead and worked with IBM to roll out a vaccine pass, which has already been tested at Madison Square Garden,” they wrote. “Likewise, Hawaii is planning a system to allow vaccinated visitors to bypass quarantines. As Massachusetts sets out to create its own vaccine verification system, it should work closely with federal partners, other states, and private enterprise.”
Finegold and Campbell also referenced equity concerns in their letter to the governor and the president.
They asked, “how can we ensure that vaccine passes do not exacerbate inequality? There are racial and ethnic disparities in vaccination rates, and the vaccine roll-out has highlighted structural barriers in accessing technology. Any vaccine verification system must be accommodating and accessible for everyone.”
Meanwhile, civil libertarians fear vaccine passports could jeopardize privacy. If people are required to display them wherever they go, governments could use them to track people’s movements.
Campbell and Finegold also acknowledged privacy concerns in their letter.
“We need regulatory oversight about who can access medical data and where this information will be kept,” they wrote. “We need oversight to prevent data from being sold to third-parties or used by law enforcement. We need oversight to prohibit data from being collected about which venues you visit. Individuals must retain control of their personal information.”
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report. Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox and Matt Stout of the Globe Staff contributed.