Reopening the United States won’t be as easy as flipping a switch. People will need to prove that they’ve been vaccinated before they can fly into another country, go to a concert, step inside a crowded restaurant, and start enjoying all the perks of post-pandemic life. The Biden Administration has just announced that it’s working on developing a so-called vaccine passport with dozens of private companies, so vaccinated Americans can start getting back to the lives they remember.
However, issuing vaccine passports may not be as easy as it sounds.
Making a Digital Passport
Five officials from the president’s administration recently told The Washington Post that the White House is working on developing vaccine passports for the general public. The effort will incorporate several government agencies and private companies looking to reopen for business.
While details remain scant, the officials said users will be able to apply for and download the passport using their smartphones. Individuals without smartphones will be able to print off the passports instead. The passport will likely take the form of a scannable QR code for touchless scanning and travel.
Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said during a recent press conference, “As we increase the number of people vaccinated, we know some people may have a need to demonstrate that they are vaccinated. The private sector and not-for-profit coalitions are already beginning to work on this.”
He added that the administration will be there to make sure these passports are free for anyone who qualifies. “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.”
Both New York state and the U.K. have announced partnerships with companies to bring these passports to fruition.
Getting the program off the ground is easier said than done. Developers will need access to reliable health information to create the passports without violating HIPAA or the patient’s right to privacy.
How Will They Be Used?
The passports could be used for virtually every aspect of post-pandemic life. Workers may need to show proof of vaccination before returning to the office. Restaurants, music venues, and sports stadiums may soon require folks to show their vaccine passports before entering to limit the spread of transmission.
Nearly everyone in the country is anxious to get back to normal, but we know that not everyone is anxious to get a vaccine. The latest polls show that just 70% of Americans are interested in getting the shot, which means we probably won’t reach herd immunity any time soon.
If a large portion of the population remains unvaccinated, business owners will need to make sure their customers aren’t spreading the virus.
Privacy remains a crucial issue as officials start exploring this option. During his press conference, Zients made it clear that these passports will be “designed from the start to protect people’s privacy.”
Another concern is the idea of free will. Ethics experts say the government must make it clear that getting vaccinated and obtaining a digital passport are voluntary. If people feel that they have to get the shot and download a passport, the effort could quickly backfire.
“If it became a government mandate, it would go down a dark road very quickly,” Dr. Brian Castrucci, CEO of the public health nonprofit Beaumont Foundation said. “It becomes a credential. It becomes a ‘needing your papers,’ if you will. That could be dangerous — and it could turn off people.”
The government will also have to protect the public from counterfeit passports. According to the BBC, traders are already selling fake COVID-19 passports online for as much as $150 on the dark web. One seller is even offering negative test results. “We do negative Covid tests, for travelers abroad, for getting a job etc. Buy two negative tests and get the third for free!”
Officials will need to make them counterfeit-proof using a unique digital code to make sure they can’t be copied or mass produced.
The White House has confirmed that it’s already working on 17 digital passport initiatives. As more people get their shots and businesses look for a way to safely reopen, we may all need a passport to get around sooner rather than later.