An idea garnering attention but not traction is COVID-19 vaccination passports.
The passports have been touted as a way for people who are vaccinated to go places more easily, whether that be traveling or to a restaurant. As enticing as the promise of vaccine passports sounds, the idea has been met with resistance from Republican lawmakers to public-health officials and bioethicists.
The governor of Texas issued an executive order stopping state agencies and any private-sector operation receiving state funds from requiring vaccination proof. The World Health Organization doesn’t support the idea because of issues of equality.
The first question people should be asking about vaccine passports is if there is an equitable system for accessing vaccines, which isn’t the case globally, said Nancy Jecker, professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“Unless we do, passports will only entrench inequality,” she said.
For a vaccine-passport program to work, the federal government needs to support the idea and for there to be a common technological standard that is secure no matter where used. That doesn’t seem likely at this point. The Biden administration is working on programs that could be used to show proof of vaccination but is not considering a federal vaccine passport.
This week’s FAQ Friday answers your questions about vaccine passports.
What is a vaccine passport and how might it be used?
The term “passport” isn’t accurate because it isn’t something used to gain access to another country on its own and would in actuality be a certificate or credential. The certificate or credential could either be on a smartphone app or printed.
COVID-19 vaccine passports could be used, in addition to a traditional passport, to travel to countries needing proof of vaccination before granting entry. The proof of vaccination potentially could allow travelers to avoid restrictions such as quarantining upon arrival. Domestically, passports could be used for access to events or businesses.
Vaccine passports are being used in various ways by some countries. China is issuing passports for citizens traveling out of the country, and in Israel, people are issued “green passes” allowing them to go to businesses like restaurants and gyms.
What are the pros and cons of vaccine passports?
The question of inequality needs to be asked not just globally but locally before considering passports because there currently isn’t equal access to vaccines, Jecker said.
“Even when we do, there are other worries that I have,” she said. “One is how are we going to enforce this? Would enforcement lead to, for example, profiling of certain racial or religious groups that are perceived to have low vaccine uptake? Would there be stigma? People with passports, obviously, would be privileged, but how would those who didn’t have passports be viewed? Would they be shunned?”
Some in government and the business community want to use the passports as a way to let people know they are moving in a safe environment and to get closer to what life was like before the SARS-CoV-2 virus set off the pandemic. They are pushing to have the Biden administration back a program.
“It’s going to be necessary to have this, and there is going to have to be some kind of system where it’s verified,” Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told The New York Times. “I think everybody in our network is a little bit perplexed by the way the federal government seems to be at arm’s length with this.”
New York is using the “Excelsior Pass,” a digital way to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain access to events and businesses. And on Tuesday, Hawaii’s governor said the state will roll out an interisland passport for state residents. The passport means residents don’t have to test negative within 72 hours of traveling to the islands of Maui, Hawaii and Kauai and wouldn’t have to quarantine for 10 days after arrival.
Expanding a vaccine-passport program beyond Hawaii is difficult, said Gov. David Ige, according to the news website Honolulu Civil Beat.
“It gets a lot more complicated trying to verify vaccinations done in other states,” he said.
With COVID-19 cases rising in many areas of the country and the world, the importance of continuing to wear masks, practice social distancing and testing are being stressed by public-health and elected officials. Passports could blunt this message, Jecker said.
“They could create a false sense of protection if people take off their masks and start to mingle as usual,” she said. “So I would argue that right now, our best bet is masking and testing, which are more readily available [than] vaccines and fairer.”