COVID-19 variant cases exceed 10,000 as states expand vaccine eligibility; vaccine ‘passports’ launch in NY, gain momentum with White House

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Meanwhile, new COVID mutations called variants are now spreading across the U.S. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

COVID-19 variant cases grew to nearly 11,000 nationwide on Sunday, and that doesn’t include two California strains that have been identified but not listed in the CDC’s tracking map.

Florida has the highest number of those cases in the nation — more than 2,000. The variants are more contagious than the original virus and are of concern because of potential changes in the effectiveness of current vaccines, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The continued proliferation of the key variants — the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil strains — create a race for time to get residents vaccinated, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has now opened up vaccine eligibility for residents and 18 and older starting April 5.

(UPDATE: The age 18 and older bracket was based on the governor’s remarks on Thursday, March 25. However, in a late Friday news release March 26, the Florida Department of Health issued an update stating that as of April 5, all individuals age 18 and older will be eligible to receive any COVID-19 vaccine, and those 16 years of age and older will be eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine.)

Meanwhile, momentum is growing for the creation of so-called “vaccine passports,” with New York governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday launching the “Excelsior Pass.”

It’s described in a press release as “a free, voluntary platform developed in partnership with IBM, which utilizes proven, secure technology to confirm an individual’s recent negative PCR or antigen test result or proof of vaccination to help fast-track the reopening of businesses and event venues in accordance with New York State Department of Health guidelines.”

The press release adds: “As part of this initial launch, participating New Yorkers may choose to use Excelsior Pass to verify their COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results as needed to gain entry to major stadiums and arenas, wedding receptions, or catered and other events above the social gathering limit.”

The Washington Post reported Sunday that the “Biden administration and private companies are working to develop a standard way of handling credentials — often referred to as “vaccine passports” — that would allow Americans to prove they have been vaccinated against the novel as businesses try to reopen.

“The effort has gained momentum amid President Biden’s pledge that the nation will start to regain normalcy this summer and with a growing number of companies — from cruise lines to sports teams — saying they will require proof of vaccination before opening their doors again,” the Post wrote.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been adamantly opposed to such vaccine passports, saying it’s a “very bad idea.” Requiring residents to show proof of vaccinations, whether through a smartphone app or another form, will disproportionately affect those from minority and impoverished populations, according to to DeSantis.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, who also is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, filed legislation SB 364 in late December 2020, to prohibit use of a driver license or identification card for “vaccination or immunity status” and to prohibit discrimination on the basis or vaccine or immunity status. That bill has not been moving in the Legislature right now.

Gruters tweeted Monday about the Biden administration working with private businesses on the vaccine passport issue.

“Another reason why I am glad I filed SB364 and that @GovRonDeSantis is committed to protecting the rights of those who for whatever reason don’t get the vaccine. Healthcare privacy and freedom are at stake.”

The Sunday data from the CDC on variants show that Florida has 2,274 cases of the United Kingdom variant; 42 cases of the Brazil variant and 14 cases of the South Africa variant.

In all, 49 states, and Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico have the United Kingdom variant. The South Africa variant is in 29 states and Washington, D.C. and the Brazil variant is in 22 states.

The cases identified are a sampling of specimens and do not represent the total number of the three variants circulating in the United States, according to the CDC.

You can look at the variant map here at the CDC.

New information in the form of an update is listed in this story.