Since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s been clear that some businesses would eventually require some sort of proof of vaccination as a ticket to ride. According to the Washington Post, over the past few weeks, the Biden administration has been considering how to implement such a complicated and ethically fraught program, commonly referred to as a “vaccine passport,” as other countries, private interests, and nongovernmental organizations do the same.
The Post reports that the Department of Health and Human Services has been leading the push, which will require an immense level of coordination between government agencies, businesses requiring vaccine passports, and companies that create the services. White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients is in charge of the process; he reportedly intends to brief governors on the plan in the coming week. A primary goal for the process is to set the standard for the massive private-public collaboration: The Post reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will “play a role in determining which organizations will credential and issue the certificates, in addition to informing the public” and working with the World Health Organization’s vaccine certification program. “Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” Zients said at a public briefing on March 12.
According to internal communications, the administration is anxious not to fumble the passport rollout, after stalled or failed efforts on coronavirus vaccinations and testing kneecapped previous responses at critical early points. “A chaotic and ineffective vaccine credential approach could hamper our pandemic response by undercutting health safety measures, slowing economic recovery, and undermining public trust and confidence,” read one slide from a March presentation from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. At the same time, proof of vaccination “may be a critical driver for restoring baseline population health and promoting safe return to social, commercial, and leisure activities.” There is also some focus-group evidence that vaccine passports could help convince Americans who do not want to get inoculated to sign up for a shot.
The passports — which most likely will be in the form of a smartphone app, or a print-out — pose tremendous ethical concerns, based on who has access to vaccinations. Though the federal government and state programs have tried to expand access for all racial and economic groups in the United States, historical inequities have persisted, with communities of color and poor Americans facing lower sign-up rates, particularly at the beginning of the effort. And with rich countries in the West hoarding vaccines and buying up the large majority of contracts for future production, many developing nations have not had the opportunity to open, mass vaccination programs. (Of the first 80 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to be distributed globally, only 55 shots went to low-income countries.) “If vaccines become a passport to doing different things, we’re going to see the communities that have been already hardest hit by COVID being left behind,” public-health expert Nicole A. Errett told the New York Times.
As the Biden administration plots the complex rollout, programs are underway throughout the world: The European Union is planning to issue electronic passes allowing for travel this summer, and Israel, with the highest vaccination rate in the world, has already handed out “green passes” allowing travel and access to events. As of last Friday, New York is workshopping the first program in the U.S. — the Excelsior Pass app — allowing users entry into sites which require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.