As the US vaccination campaign accelerates, so-called vaccine passports gain traction despite political divisions and a fragmented healthcare system that makes data centralization more difficult.
Asher Weintraub, 17, was pleased to show off the new digital New York “passport” he downloaded to his smartphone, which confirmed via a QR code that he was vaccinated against Covid.
“I think it’s good, you do not have to like to provide all (kinds of) forms and documents every time,” he said, showing off his code at the entrance to one of Manhattan’s first indoor concerts since March 2020.
Under the leadership of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York is the only U.S. state to have launched such a passport, which is voluntary and has been done in collaboration with IBM.
Still not often used, it immediately verifies if the wearer has received the vaccine or recently tested negative for the disease.
Other heads of state have firmly rejected the idea.
The Republican governors of Florida and Texas, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, respectively, have issued executive orders banning government missions in the states.
Orders effectively prevent companies from requiring customers to show a certificate.
“People have certain freedoms and individual freedoms to make decisions for themselves,” DeSantis said.
South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem described vaccine passes as “one of the most American ideas in our nation’s history” on Twitter.
President Joe Biden’s administration intends to stay out of the controversy. On Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there would be “no federal mandate requiring everyone to receive a single vaccination certificate.”
She said Washington would instead provide guidance to ensure that systems “are not used against people unfairly”, with respect to privacy and security issues.
Israel’s “green passports”
Even without the government leading the way, many believe that digital certification methods will be developed in a world where smartphones are an important tool in everyday life.
Israel’s launch of a “green passport” following a highly praised rapid vaccine campaign is being watched with interest.
At present, all US passports will be private or governmental. In addition to the New York Pass, the Common Pass project seems to be the most advanced.
Launched by the Commons Project, a non-profit organization specializing in the interconnection of digital health data, the passport is already used daily by a dozen international airlines, according to director Paul Meyer.
Unlike the proprietary system designed for the state of New York, the Common Pass platform is open source, which means that its code is accessible to anyone to use.
It uses a secure data protection system and Meyer sees it as a “standard” in a sector that is expected to grow as the pressure builds to revive economies.
The organization is in “active dialogue” with the European Union, which is working on a passport that allows free travel within the Schengen area, and several European governments, Meyer said, without specifying which ones.
“The United States has this challenge of having this fragmented system, so it’s much easier to work with countries where there is an existing national system,” Meyer said.
In America’s primarily private health care systems, states are responsible for providing all public services, as opposed to the usual public health care systems in European countries where data is centralized.
If US political polarization limits the development of a passport, Meyer hopes the “freedom to come back to life” argument, including allowing people to travel, participate in baseball games or go to the theater, will prevail.
Marcus Plescia, medical director of ASTHO, an association that brings together health officials from US states, believes that “most people think having a vaccine pass will be useful at least in some situations.”
At present, the discussion is still “a little too early” given that millions of people are still not fully vaccinated, he said. But he would not be surprised if schools and some private employers soon demanded a vaccination certificate from Covid.
“I think some of the reluctance can go away when people realize that you can do many things once you have been vaccinated,” he added.