A digital COVID-19 vaccination card available from the state Department of Public Health will be promoted as a convenience and is not the harbinger of a mandatory vaccine passport, Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday.
Theaters, sports tournaments and some colleges now require patrons and visitors to show proof of vaccination, but the governor said he is adamantly opposed to a state mandate requiring anyone to show a paper or digital vaccination card.
“Mandates, sometimes you just create a lot of pushback,” said Lamont, who notes Connecticut’s vaccination rate is high. “Right now, we’ve got the wind to our back in terms of people doing the right thing.”
A soft launch of the digital vaccination card has allowed testing of the system before a formal kickoff expected next week. It is a feature that Envision Technology Partners, the vendor that operates the DPH vaccination site and has contracted with the state since 2019, is adding to its software, said Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer.
Geballe said Wednesday there was no additional cost to the state, but clarified Thursday that Connecticut contributed $60,000 in federal funds to the development of the multi-state tool.
“When you roll it out, you want to get it right. We’re taking privacy very seriously. That’s part of what this process is about,” Lamont said. “I think we’ll be ready to go in a week or so but depends on the final test.”
Lamont and his top aides have repeatedly assured the restaurant industry it will not follow the lead of New York City or Chicago, where vaccination proof is required to dine in a restaurant.
“Everything they are developing with that app is going to be opt in,” said Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association. “I don’t think my members are going to use it.”
Currently, he said, he is aware of only two members that ask for vaccination proof, both have a nightclub vibe with dancing. The owners have decided that vaccination proof in their establishments encourages patronage, but they are an exception, he said.
Dolch said he regularly hears from concerned members who have heard rumors that a vaccine passport will be necessary for patrons, but he has been assured by the Lamont administration that no mandates or restrictions are coming.
The digital vaccination card will be a convenience, said Dolch, who already has downloaded a QR code of his COVID vaccinations and his son’s into his Apple wallet. His son frequently plays in hockey tournaments that require vaccination proof.
“I think people are making more out of that than they should be, calling it a passport,” Dolch said.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, has called for an informational hearing on the card, saying he wants assurances it cannot be used to deny essential services to the unvaccinated or collect data.
“Is government now facilitating a new method of providing businesses the ability to discriminate against people based on vaccination status?” Candelora asked, though he conceded businesses were disinclined to turn away patrons.
“You could pose the same question about the paper vaccine card,” said Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer and commissioner of administrative services. “It’s just a digital version of that paper vaccine card that’s more secure and more convenient.”
Candelora said he fears that digitizing the vaccination cards would allow the state and a third-party vendor to track people.
“I fundamentally have a problem with this and where we’re going,” Candelora said. “And now we’re digitizing it. And now we’re going to use a third party vendor that collects this data that now knows what shops and what places we’ve been to based on scanning.”
Geballe said if someone’s digital card is scanned at a theater, that information is not collected by the state or its vendor. He compared the scanners to those used to validate electronic tickets allowing entrance to sports or theater venues.
If the ticket or card is legitimate, the scanner flashes green.
“It’s a verifier app that scans it,” Geballe said. “It’s not collecting the data. It’s just … giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down on is this person fully vaccinated?”
The Bushnell in Hartford, Infinity Theater in Hartford and Norfolk, and many other live-performance venues require masks and proof of vaccination or recent testing for admission. Both are required by all Broadway theaters.
The availability of the digital vaccination card in Connecticut will not come with a requirement it be used, Lamont said.
“We leave it up to the store owner, this is totally at their discretion. And you as an individual don’t have to get the digital health card if you don’t want it,” he said.
COVID deaths in the U.S. surpassed 800,000 on Wednesday, according to a New York Times database, and cases are rising once again.
In Connecticut, there were 1,723 new cases, bringing the total to 452,038. The positivity rate has averaged around 5% over a rolling seven-day average, though it was 7.15% on Wednesday.
Hospitalizations for COVID increased by 35 to 716, slightly more than half of what there were during the surge of cases a year ago and about one third of what was recorded in the first wave in the spring of 2020.
Three quarters of those hospitalized with COVID were not fully vaccinated. Lamont said promoting vaccinations and booster shots remain Connecticut’s primary tool in fighting the pandemic.
This story was updated with Geballe’s clarification that the state contributed $60,000 in federal funds to the development of the multi-state digital vaccination card.