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Health, Science & Tech

Pennsylvania House Votes To Ban 'Vaccine Passports,' Set New Limits On Health Secretary

New York State, along with IBM, is developing Excelsior Pass to provide digital proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
New York State, along with IBM, is developing Excelsior Pass to provide digital proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.

Republicans in the Pennsylvania House on Wednesday voted to ban the use of so-called COVID-19 “vaccine passports” by colleges, universities or governmental entities and to put new restrictions on the health secretary's powers during a health emergency.

Representatives voted 112-89, on party lines, to approve the measure that supporters described as a way to protect private health information, but opponents warned would needlessly endanger public health.

The bill would prevent the state health secretary from ordering closures and from requiring people who have not been exposed to a contagion to physically distance, wear a mask, “conduct a specific hygienic practice” such as hand-washing, quarantine or restrict travel.

The Wolf administration believes those restrictions, if enacted, would apply in all cases, not just during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The proposal was amended in the House, so has to go back to the state Senate for another vote before it can land on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's desk. Wolf said he will veto it.

“The governor has no intention to endorse, create or require vaccine passports in Pennsylvania, but he believes that private entities/venues/businesses have the right to set their own requirements for entry,” said Wolf press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger.

The legislation says colleges and universities that get state money can’t require proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter buildings, attend class in person or undertake any activity. Governmental entities would be similarly restricted from requiring proof of vaccination.

It also would ban any governmental entity from including COVID-19 vaccine status on an ID card.

“It seems odd that we are trying to limit other facilities’ ability to make a decision about what is safe for their facility,” said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster. “There may be facilities that say, ‘Come and go as you please, we don’t care.’ But if a facility determines that it’s unsafe, why would we then restrict them?”

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said health secretaries under Wolf have taken an “expansive view” of their powers under the Disease Prevention and Control Law.

Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Beaver, said he’d heard from many of his constituents about vaccine passports.

“The reason why it’s so important is because it’s so personal. And the reason it’s so personal is this is an example of the government telling each and every one of us hat we can and can’t do with our own personal medical decisions,” Bernstine said.

Republicans pushed through a pair of state constitutional amendments that voters approved last month, effectively ending Wolf’s declaration of disaster emergency because of the pandemic. However, the Wolf administration has maintained many of the pandemic mitigation efforts were done under the health secretary’s authority in the disease control law.