Q: When is a vaccine passport not a vaccine passport?
A: According to the Oregon Health Authority, it’s all about the technology.
At a recent Oregon legislative subcommittee hearing, OHA director Patrick Allen drew a distinction between mandating electronic proof of vaccination for entry and Oregon’s decision to require businesses to check customer vaccination status at the door before allowing them to enter sans mask.
“This is not requiring an app or download of anything,” Allen told members of the House Health Care Subcommittee on COVID-19 during a late May meeting. “This just requires to see the card you got when you got your shot.”
Oregon’s decision to require grocery stores, restaurants, retail shops, and other outlets to verify vaccination at the door for customers who don’t want to wear their masks (or, alternatively, keep mask requirements in place for all) has drawn a swift backlash from businesses and their employees alike.
At the same legislative hearing, Amanda Dalton, the acting president of the Northwest Grocers Association, read aloud a plea from an independent grocer in Southern Oregon: “We cannot check the public’s papers at the door. This has put all of us in danger of violent altercations from both sides of this issue. This is worse than leaving the previous guidance in place, which is what we will be forced to do.”
The restaurant and hospitality industry, has made no bones about its dislike of the current policy: “From the beginning of the pandemic, restaurant and frontline workers bore the brunt of the crises," says Kurt Thornby, who is the CEO of Poached Jobs, an industry hiring site. "They were laid off, left to deal with outdated and broken unemployment systems, told to go back to work before vaccines were widely available, called lazy for finally getting unemployment insurance benefits, and now they are expected to enforce state mandates without any state guidance or support. At some point, our society has to recognize the work restaurant workers do and give them the respect they deserve, instead of giving them more uncompensated responsibilities.”
In a few weeks, the issue stands to get even more fraught, as Oregon is on track to hit the target set by Gov. Kate Brown of having 70 percent or more adults with at least a first dose of the vaccine by mid-June or so. The governor said Friday that once we hit that mark, she'll lift mask, distancing and capacity mandates entirely, statewide. Businesses could choose to continue mask requirements for all, require vaccine verification, or move to an honor system, as is currently the case in Washington state.
Brown’s office says there are currently no plans to develop an app for vaccination status checks.
“Currently, we are asking for businesses and other locations to verify proof of vaccination as defined by the Oregon Health Authority’s guidance, or to maintain their existing mask and distancing measures,” says Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor’s office. “This is an interim step, as we work over the next few weeks to reach our 70 percent statewide vaccination goal and close our equity gaps. We don’t anticipate piloting an app for verification in that amount of time.”
Other states and countries, however, are moving in that direction. In New York state, for example, more than 1 million people have downloaded the Excelsior Pass, which is used to screen for entry into concerts, art galleries, and more. Hawaii rolled out an app to prove vaccination status that can be used for inter-island travel for residents. The European Union took a similar approach for travelers who want to country-hop. In Oregon, those with a MyHealth account have access to their electronic vaccination records, though that includes your entire vaccine history, not just your Pfizer/Moderna/ Johnson and Johnson jab.
Closer to home, in Washington state, it’s getting easier to provide electronic proof of your vaccination status. The state has contracted with myIR.net to launch a free vaccine registry online; a handful of other states, including Arizona, Maryland, and Tennessee are also signed up.
(Worth noting: when it comes to technology, Oregon has been a few steps behind throughout the pandemic. Exhibit A is the state’s long-promised contact tracing app that never materialized, though the efficacy and privacy protections baked into such apps came under question as the months wore on.)
Those same questions about privacy protections have cropped up around digital vaccine passports, too, from both Democrats and Republicans. The Biden administration has said it will not issue a national vaccine passport requirement, a position that has found support from Oregon GOP leaders.
“Vaccine passports are completely contrary to Oregonians' sense of privacy,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod (R-Lyons) wrote in a recent press release. “In a democracy, having to present proper paperwork to engage in everyday activities is a complete violation of public trust and an invasion of privacy.”
Rebecca Gibbons, the broadband and digital equity program manager for the city of Portland, pointed to data from the 2019 American Community Survey, which shows that at least 15,000 Multnomah County residents don't own a smartphone or a computer. Additionally, more than 35,000 residents have strict limits on their data usage thanks to their cell phone plans, she says.
"So these individuals and households will face significant barriers to moving about our community if a vaccine passport is required based on the sheer lack of a device and data plan," Gibbons says. "With a passport requirement there will also be a need for increased digital literacy skills training, particularly for seniors, people with disabilities, and people with limited English language proficiency, to learn about how to download and use a passport application. Not to mention how to address privacy and security concerns."