With summer around the corner, Americans are desperate for some sense of normalcy as the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine continues. Some businesses and lawmakers believe they have a simple solution that will allow people to gather in larger numbers again: vaccine passports.
But as with so many issues in the US these days, it’s an idea dividing America.
Vaccine passport supporters see a future where people would have an app on their phone that would include their vaccine information, similar to the paper record card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that is given when a person is vaccinated. People would flash the app when entering a large venue for something like a concert or sports game.
While many other countries have implemented or are considering vaccine passports, in a country where political divides have determined belief in mask usage, social distancing and even the lethality of the virus, it comes as no surprise that there is already a political divide over whether vaccine passports should be used at all.
Leaders of some Democratic states have embraced the idea of vaccine passports at big events like concerts and weddings.
New York launched its Excelsior Pass with IBM in late March with the intention of having the app used at theaters, sports stadiums and event venues. California health officials will allow venues that verify whether someone has gotten the vaccine or tested negative to hold larger events. Hawaii is working with multiple companies on a vaccine passport system that would allow travelers to bypass Covid-19 testing and quarantine requirements if vaccinated.
“Businesses have lost a lot of money during this whole period here so there’s a lot to recoup,” Mufi Hannemann, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism and Lodging Association, told local news station Hawaii News Now. “We’re anxious to get this economy moving forward in a safe and healthy manner.”
On the flip side, a growing number of states are passing laws banning vaccine passports, citing concerns of privacy and intrusion on people’s decisions to get vaccinated.
“Government should not require any Texas to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives,” said Governor Greg Abbott, who ordered that no government agency or institution receiving government funding should require proof of vaccination.
The governors of Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona and Indiana have passed or voiced support for similar laws.
Splits have already taken place. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, told the CDC it would be willing to require passengers be fully vaccinated before boarding, but Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, said his ban on vaccine passports prohibits such a mandate.
Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, like many colleges and universities, said they would require students to be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall, but the school is considering backtracking the policy following DeSantis’s order.
Though conservative figures like Donald Trump Jr, who called vaccine passports “invasive”, have started to broadly attack Democrats for backing vaccine passports, the White House has made it clear the federal government has no plans to release a vaccine passport, or require mandatory vaccines.
“The government is not now nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, earlier in April.
Psaki said the White House would release guidance for businesses and local governments who wish to implement vaccine passports.
Vaccine passports have historically been used when crossing country borders. For example, some countries, including Brazil and Ghana, require people to have the vaccine against yellow fever before entering their countries. And while vaccine passports have not been used widely domestically in the US, vaccine mandates, and the proof of vaccines needed to carry them out, are common. Many schools require students to get a host of vaccines, while many healthcare systems often require the annual flu vaccine for employers.
Sensitivity around a vaccine passport is probably an offshoot of a broader vaccine hesitancy. Recent polling has shown that vaccine skepticism has a partisan bent: 30% of Republicans said they would not get the vaccine versus 11% of Democrats, according to the Covid States Project.
David Lazer, professor of political science at Northeastern University and a researcher with the Covid States Project, said “partisan divides on behaviors and policies have been acute throughout the pandemic”, but Democrats and Republicans are more evenly split on vaccines compared with other policies against Covid-19, like mask-wearing and social distancing.
The term “passport” could also be turning people away from the concept, said Maureen Miller, an epidemiologist with Columbia University, as it implies that verification requires more personal information beyond vaccination status. A recent poll from the de Beaumont Foundation confirmed this, with Republican respondents being more supportive of vaccine “verification” over a “passport”.
Miller said the World Health Organization, which is developing its own Smart Vaccine Certificate and standards for vaccine verification programs, has been adamant about making the distinction between a certificate and a passport.
“A passport contains a lot of personal information, and a vaccine certificate does not,” Miller said. “It contains only the information necessary to convey the fact that the person has been vaccinated.”
Other groups including the Vaccine Credential Initiative and the Covid-19 Credential Initiative are working on coming up with standards for digital vaccine passports with the aim of building trust in vaccine verification programs.
Miller said the ultimate goal would be to reach herd immunity in the US, which would nix the need for vaccine passports but would require working through the skepticism that exists in the country.
“People are not going to feel comfortable in large numbers, in social environments until we hit a kind of herd immunity, where, when you bump into someone, the risk of an infectious person bumping into someone who’s susceptible is decreased tremendously,” Miller said.