As debate about vaccine passports rages, what might the technology mean for Kansas?

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

While a national debate is raging over a new technology aiming to help residents prove their vaccination status, potentially allowing them to attend mass gatherings and travel more freely, Kansas lawmakers from both parties have poured cold water on the idea.

The idea of vaccine passports is the latest political front in the COVID-19 pandemic. The technology serves as a mobile application that demonstrates whether a person has been inoculated against the virus, along with other health and personal information.

But conservatives nationally — including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top Congressional Republicans — have slammed the idea as infringing on the liberties of residents and potentially putting their data privacy at risk.

More:Kansas has expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility. Here's what you need to know.

Kansas lawmakers have poured call water on the idea of vaccine passports, or technology allowing residents to prove they are immunized against COVID-19.

Many are hoping the passports will be an important piece of rebooting the global travel industry, as it would allow immigration officials to quickly ascertain if a person has some level of immunity to the virus.

But the documents could be key for those wishing to attend sporting events, conferences and concerts domestically. New York became the first state to roll out an official, government-sanctioned mobile application for this purpose and other states are considering similar moves to allow residents to more easily attend mass gatherings.

More:Did you already get the COVID-19 vaccine? Here's what Kansas officials say you can do

Other states have pushed back. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said last week that the Show-Me State would be making no move to require the use of a vaccine passport.

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly told reporters Monday that she rejected the idea, instead saying she was focused on other aspects of the pandemic response she deemed to be more pressing.

"I have no interest in vaccine passports," she said. "We will not be issuing those under my authority, for sure, and we have a lot of other things to deal with — things that will make a difference in people's safety and health."

Legislators could still block use by private businesses

But it is possible that private businesses will embrace the concept — if legislators don't make some move to pre-empt them from doing so.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning the concept, even if being used by private companies. Legislators in Arkansas have proposed similar language and the concept could catch on in other, more conservative states.

More:All adults in Kansas to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine starting March 29

No formal bill has been proposed in Kansas. Members of the Kansas House have, however, proposed a resolution urging the state to adopt a "COVID-19 Vaccine Bill of Rights," which would limit the use of vaccine passports.

The resolution text claims the technology would  "pose substantial risks to personal privacy and equal treatment before the law for all Kansans and United States citizens." There has been no move to advance the resolution, and it would have no binding effect even if passed.

But these concerns are likely a prelude to any larger debate on regulating vaccine passports in Kansas.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, said the Kansas Legislature will step in if private businesses begin to require the use of vaccine passports for potential customers.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said the Kansas Legislature would wade in if the use became widespread among private businesses.

"A private business has every right to say 'If you're going to come into a store, we're going to make you wear a mask," Hildebrand said in an interview. "That's a little bit different than saying show me your papers. ... I think that is blurring the line."

Despite politicized debate, officials acknowledge larger issues

Experts note there are legitimate concerns about vaccine passports.

Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said at a news conference last week that the idea would be the domain of the private sector, not the federal government.

He noted, however, there might be a need for federal guidelines to shape how the technology is used going forward. That would include ensuring personal data is protected, making sure the applications were rolled out equitably and keeping residents without smartphones in mind when implementing the technology.

More:Children can't get a vaccine yet; some legislators want to ensure it won't be required.

"Unlike other parts of the world, the government here is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport, nor a place to hold the data of citizens," Slavitt said.

Mark Hall, an expert on health law at Wake Forest University, said the ultimate answer likely would be a "middle ground" between an absolute ban on the practice and a formal government embrace of passports going forward.

But he added the politicized nature of the debate has led to the idea taking on a life of its own.

"It creates a rhetorical talking point," Hall said, "but there's just not, I don't think, a fair characterization of how these things operate."