The state’s top health official said Friday she supports the idea of “vaccine passports’’ but does not want them to be something that people would have to show to enter certain businesses.
The issue of passports has taken center stage since the Biden administration said it was developing standards for people to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. While press secretary Jen Psaki said there will be no national mandate, the idea that people might be asked for their papers has raised concerns.
A state Senate panel already has approved a measure to preclude businesses from demanding proof of vaccination for customers.
HB 2190 also currently prohibits business owners from making that a requirement for employees. But Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said that verbiage is likely to be removed when the measure goes to the full Senate.
And Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, is seeking a legal opinion from Attorney General Mark Brnovich whether private companies can make vaccination proof a condition of being a patron or an employee.
“That’s something that we’re kind of looking at here,’’ said Dr. Cara Christ.
“If Arizonans want access to that vaccine history, I think that there should be a very easy way for Arizonans to do that,’’ she said. “We would like to facilitate that, but not as a requirement into events or those types of things.’’
Christ said she carries around the paper card she got when she got inoculated.
“It would be nice to have an electronic format of some of that,’’ the health director said. “But we’re not looking here at the department at making that a requirement.’’
Still, Christ said, this isn’t a question for her agency.
“Business owners do have the ability to implement mitigation strategies,’’ she said, ways to protect against the spread of the virus. And that is not limited to masks and social distancing.
All that, however, could change depending on Roberts’ legislation and any possible Brnovich opinion.
States are moving in different directions.
New York has developed its “Excelsior Pass’’ which is being promoted as a way of “reopening New York’s economy and accelerating the return to pre-pandemic activities.’’
But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week not only barred government agencies from issuing any standardized document to show vaccination but specifically prohibited businesses from requiring patrons to provide any documentation showing they either were inoculate or had recovered.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a similar directive but with a twist: Documentation could not be required by any private entity that is or will receive public funds through any means, including grants, contracts, loans or any other disbursements of taxpayer money.
C.J. Karamargin, spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said there have been no decisions made on such an edict here. But Karamargin cited an existing executive order that says the state will not require anyone to be vaccinated.
“There is a track record of the governor’s thinking on this matter,’’ he said.
The issue of vaccine passports arose as Christ detailed how there has been a slight uptick in the number of cases of the virus. But the health director said that was anticipated as more people are going out.
It also comes on the heels of Ducey abolishing all occupancy limits on bars and restaurants and eliminating any mandate for customers and staff to wear masks or socially distance. Now those are just recommendations.
But Christ also said there has been no similar increase in the number of people hospitalized. She said
that may have to do with the increased number of Arizonans who are vaccinated -- about 2.5 million Arizonans have has gotten at least one dose with 1.6 million being fully protected -- and specifically that the state prioritized getting its most vulnerable inoculated early on.
Put simply, those who are vaccinated are less likely to require hospitalization and die. Still, she said, people need to assess their own risks when deciding to go out.
“No vaccine is 100% effective,’’ she said. And Christ also warned those who might have only minor symptoms -- or not even be aware they have contracted the virus -- to avoid spreading it to those who are more vulnerable.
On paper, the latest data also show another 1,302 new cases as of Friday. But Christ said the numbers are misleading.
She said they include 625 cases dating from November through February which could not be added to the totals because, until now, there were questions about what type of testing was performed. That includes 270 in Gila County, 142 in Graham County and 213 in Navajo County.
Subtracting those, the number of new cases was 677, in line with what it has been for the past week.
On the subject of vaccines, Christ said Arizona may be approaching the point where the supply exceeds the demand.
Arizona expects to get another 339,230 doses this coming week, bringing the total to more than 4 million. At the same time, the state is trying to deal with vaccine hesitancy among many of those who have yet to get inoculated or even sign up.
Christ said this isn’t limited to COVID-19, with her agency finding similar problems with other vaccines.
One strategy is a new public service announcement featuring what she called “influential leaders’’ in the community, many of these who are people of color, saying the vaccine is safe and urging people to roll up their sleeves. There also are plans for pop-up vaccination events, “put on by trusted community providers.’’
And then there’s going to be more vaccines distributed by individual health care providers rather than just the mass-vaccination sites.
“So it’ll be available where people normally receive their health care and get a lot of trusted advice and guidance and can ask their questions, one on one,’’ Christ said. “That will help.’’