House debates 'vaccine passport' ban; Whitmer says state not exploring concept

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Dozens of people spread across a meeting room and at least three overflow rooms attended a hearing Thursday on legislation that would ban state agencies from developing a vaccine passport as a requirement to receive state services. 

No such vaccine passport has been proposed in Michigan, but lawmakers say the bill discussed in the House Oversight Committee is preemptive against such a policy.

"It's not something that's out of the realm of possibility," said Rep. Sue Allor, the Wolverine Republican who introduced the bill. Allor said she doesn't plan to get a vaccine because of past reactions to other types of injections, including the flu shot.

“I don’t think people’s everyday activities should be decided based on whether or not they have received a COVID-19 vaccine or injection,” Allor said. 

Demonstrators gathered outside the House Office Building in Lansing on Thursday, May 6, 2021, ahead of a House Oversight Committee hearing to discuss legislation banning government agencies from developing a COVID-19 vaccine passport.

The House Oversight Committee is expected to vote on the bill next week but it could face opposition from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose office called the legislation a distraction and waste of time Thursday morning. 

"The state has been very clear that they’re not currently exploring a vaccine passport concept," said Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for the Democratic governor. "Instead of working with us to increase vaccinations across our state, Republicans would rather continue a circus and listen to an unaccredited conspiracy theorist, wasting time and taxpayer dollars." 

State Rep. Steve Johnson, the Wayland Republican who chairs House Oversight, defended the legislation and the hearing Thursday. 

"We're seeing this movement in other places," Johnson said. "If this isn't part of the governor's agenda, then great. There should be no problem passing this bill. The Legislature does preemptive things all the time to make sure when there's a bad idea out there we stop it before it gets started."

In Michigan, nearly 52% of the population over the age of 16 has received at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 40% are considered fully vaccinated. Michigan has tied the lifting of some restrictions to the state's vaccination rate, with a goal of hitting a 70% vaccination rate before all restrictions are lifted. 

Individuals who testified before the committee Thursday expressed concerns about the vaccines, about their personal data being shared and about the creation of two tiers of residents, one for those who are vaccinated and one for those who are not. Several compared such a requirement to civil rights abuses or restrictions placed on Jews during the Holocaust. 

Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, called the comparisons "appalling and abhorrent." She noted no physicians were consulted while developing the bill, despite physician concerns that the legislation could ban access to a state database of vaccinations or ban the vaccine cards given out as shots are administered. 

"If pharmacies, hospitals and other providers of the vaccine can’t upload and access this information, they can’t properly administer the vaccine to those people who want it," Brixie said. 

Allor maintained doctors' access to the database would be maintained but access by other parties would be banned. Vaccine cards issued at vaccination would not be prohibited, she said, but using them to determine government services would be.

Still, she and Johnson expected a substitute bill in the coming days would clarify that language. 

"We're happy to work with healthcare professionals to make sure that we get the wording just right," Johnson said. "The intention is to make sure the government is not treating people differently based on their vaccination choices."

The bill would create the COVID-19 Vaccination Privacy Act to stop state or local government agencies from producing COVID-19 vaccination passports or providing incentives for having one. 

A state employee or agency that violated the act would be fined $1,000. 

Allor noted that her bill only applied to government agencies, but other legislation proposed by Republican lawmakers Wednesday would ban employers from discriminating against employees "based on vaccination or immunity status."

But Johnson said he doesn't believe the strictures on private industry would be necessary if businesses were prohibited from accessing state vaccine information. 

"If the government is not issuing or maintaining a database for the purposes of a vaccine passport it becomes very difficult for a private entity to do it on their own," Johnson said.

Among those testifying Thursday were mothers opposed to the vaccines, individuals with constitutional concerns about a mandate and Right to Life of Michigan, which advocated for the legislation in order to protect people objecting to the vaccine based on the use of fetal tissue in testing or development.

Naomi Wolf — a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, a vocal critic of pandemic lockdown orders and co-founder of a tech company that in part helps people navigate legislation — warned lawmakers Thursday vaccine passports were not a "hypothetical" but were part a "global campaign."

Wolf, a non-fiction writer, indicated that an app-based vaccine passport could easily give unprecedented access into people's personal lives and penalize those hesitant toward the vaccine. 

Wolf, who said her grandmother was a Holocaust refugee, also drew a parallel between the two-tier system a vaccine passport creates and some of the factors that lead to discrimination.

"It all started with just papers that separated out the population — in Germany, for instance, and then in central Europe — into people who were seen as clean and people who were seen as unclean," Wolf said. "That is the start of many, many genocides."

The Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus condemned the Holocaust references during the hearing, calling the hearing part of Republican lawmakers' "descent into the darkest depths of extremism."

"It is no wonder that Jewish Michiganders, and all Michiganders who cherish truth, democracy, and the rule of law, will not hesitate to put an end to the Republicans’ extreme agenda in Lansing in 2022," said Noah Arbit, founder and chairman for the caucus.