As more Americans are getting vaccinated – more than 20% of the U.S. population is fully inoculated against COVID-19 – a growing concern is arising about how people will prove that they are immune to the virus. Since the first cases of COVID-19 reached the United States last year, every aspect of the pandemic has become politicized: lockdowns, masks, and now the so-called vaccine “passports” are no different. So what exactly are vaccine passports and what can we expect to see in the U.S.?
As of now, once someone receives their shot of the vaccine, they walk away with a CDC-issued vaccination card showing the date of the inoculation, the vaccine manufacturer, and the number of doses administered. All of this information is currently stored on a 4-by-3 inch piece of paper. The cards are pretty easy to replicate and hundreds of fraudsters are already selling fake vaccination cards online.
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The idea behind the digital credentials is pretty straightforward: they are an electronic record of vaccination, possibly in the form of a QR code, accessible through a smartphone or printed out. The same technology can be used to show a person’s coronavirus test results. The hope is that these “passports” could help re-open the economy and allow people to return safely to normal activities. Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of policy at Airlines for America, told NPR that they could help automate and facilitate traveling for passengers who are vaccinated. An electronic system would be faster and more secure than having to fish out fake cards from the CDC-issued ones.
These digital vaccination records are getting more and more attention as a growing number of companies are saying they will require proof of inoculation before opening up again. Some international airlines, sports franchises, cruise companies, universities, and foreign governments have already announced they will make vaccines a requirement.
In the U.S., the Biden administration has made it clear that there will not be a federal vaccinations database or federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential. Many agencies and companies are jumping on the opportunity, with over 17 passport initiatives currently underway, according to The Washington Post. This growing excitement over the launch of digital vaccine certificate apps also comes with the worry of technology companies inserting themselves in the middle of a public health crisis. Some of the main concerns include data security and equity – meaning ensuring that low-income populations aren’t left out.
But for some politicians, the vaccine “passports” also represent a threat to individual freedom and privacy. Both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have already issued executive orders prohibiting businesses and state agencies from creating a vaccine passport requirement.
The Florida order states that “requiring so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports for taking part in everyday life – such as attending a sporting event, patronizing a restaurant, or going to a movie theater – would create two classes of citizens based on vaccination.”
While some of the concerns surrounding the digital certificates are valid, it is worth noting that vaccine records – mandatory or not – are nothing new. Students enrolling in schools and universities in the U.S. have long had to provide proof of vaccinations. Many countries around the world require visitors to get vaccinated against certain diseases. And for some countries, the COVID-19 vaccine will soon be added to that list.
Some nations have fully embraced the idea of requiring vaccine certificates to enter certain places. Israel, for example, introduced its “green pass” in February allowing vaccinated people to return to restaurants, theaters, concert venues, gyms, hotels, and sports events. Other countries in Europe such as Iceland and Britain are also starting to experiment with easing restrictions for people who have been inoculated.
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There seems to be evidence that vaccine passports could actually motivate some skeptical Americans to get the vaccine, The Washington Post writes. At a recent focus group of Trump supporters, participants said their desire to resume normal aspects of daily life could overcome their fear of the vaccine – especially if companies start to require proof of vaccination.