Pennsylvania lawmakers vote to ban vaccine passports

Bill that cleared the state House faces a veto threat from Gov. Tom Wolf.

Updated: June 23, 2021 - 11:03pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A bill banning vaccine passports cleared the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, even though it faces Gov. Tom Wolf's promise to veto it once it reaches his desk.

Senate Bill 618 prevents public entities from requiring proof of vaccination akin to New York’s Excelsior Pass, a mobile app that provides digital proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or negative test using a QR code that is connected to the state's vaccine registry and the databases of several testing companies.

The Department of Health said earlier this year that such a policy was never under consideration in Pennsylvania.

But that didn’t stop Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, from proposing the legislation anyway – or the upper chamber from amending it to prevent the Secretary of Health from mandating social distancing, universal masking or stay-at-home orders ever again.

“The state has yet to prove it can manage and handle personal health care information as evidenced by the ongoing debacle of the third-party entity hired by the Department of Health that mismanaged contact tracing data of adults and children,” Phillips-Hill said Wednesday. “A government-issued vaccine passport is a bridge too far, especially in light of how the state’s contact tracing program failed more than 72,000 Pennsylvanians and their very personal health care data.”

Wolf’s administration believes the secretary of health is afforded specific emergency powers under the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955. The two constitutional amendments approved by voters last month only limit the governor’s emergency authority, but do nothing to prevent the secretary of health from imposing orders stemming from a public health emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said the administration’s “expansive view” of the DPCL “runs contrary to the law’s intent and its plain language.”

“Among the other good provisions in this bill, Senate Bill 618 would clarify the language of the Disease Prevention and Control Law to ensure an unelected bureaucrat – the secretary of Health – cannot upend the lives of Pennsylvanians who are well,” he said.

“It is a logical extension of the action we took a few weeks ago to end the COVID-19 disaster declaration, and reins in the ability of one person to have unilateral control over Pennsylvanians,” Benninghoff added.

Democrats maintain that the legislation is contradictory, misguided and irresponsible. And Wolf has committed to vetoing it once it reaches his desk.

Before he can reject the bill, however, the Senate must concur on an amendment the House added that would prevent colleges and universities that receive subsidies from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency from requiring students to show proof of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, said Wednesday she appreciates “the House’s support for a plan that at its core is about placing checks and balances on unrestrained authority that was forced on the people of Pennsylvania for more than 15 months.”

“Whether mandating a vaccine, masking, social isolation or business closures, today the General Assembly said no more to the government overreach and unprecedented intrusion on behalf of the people we represent,” she said. “It is my hope the Governor will take time to review these provisions with an open mind.”