Every question you have about vaccine passports, answered by infectious disease doctors

·6-min read
TOPSHOT - This illustration photo taken in Los Angeles on April 6, 2021 shows a person looking at the app for the New York State Excelsior Pass, which provides secure, digital proof of a Covid-19 vaccination, in front of a screen showing the New York skyline. - As the United States' vaccination campaign accelerates, so-called vaccine passports are gaining traction despite political divisions and a fragmented health care system that complicates the centralization of data. (Photo by Chris DELMAS / AFP) (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)
The New York State Excelsior Pass. (Photo: Getty Images)

The idea of vaccine passports has been floating around practically since the COVID-19 vaccine was created. Now, for vaccinated people in New York state, it's a reality.

The state has launched the Excelsior Pass, which is a digital verification that someone is vaccinated. The pass is stored in the Excelsior Pass Wallet app and is available free to users. People can also print their pass from the Excelsior Pass website and carry it with them.

Businesses can then scan the pass and validate that the holder meets COVID-19 vaccination or has recently tested negative for the virus. People with the pass will also be asked to show a photo ID to verify that the pass belongs to them. 

The pass is generated based on data from medical care providers and labs that are sent to the New York State and New York City immunization and COVID-19 testing databases.

New York isn't the only region making vaccination passports a reality: The European Union has a digital vaccine passport system called the EU Digital COVID Certificate, which is now being used in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece and Poland. The passport works similarly to the Excelsior Pass and is accepted at all EU member states. 

The concept of a vaccine passport — especially a national vaccine passport — has raised a lot of questions. Here, infectious disease experts weigh in on some of the most pressing qs.

Will the U.S. adopt a national vaccine passport?

It seems unlikely. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in early April that there are no plans for vaccine passports on a federal level. "The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” Psaki said. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

The reason cited by Psaki: The government is concerned about privacy and is worried that vaccine passports could be “used against people unfairly."

Does New York's vaccine passport work in other states?

As of now, the Excelsior pass is just being used in New York, according to the state's website.

Do digital passports make activities safer?

In general, infectious disease doctors say that requiring that people show proof of vaccination to enter a business or event can make activities safer. "There's no question that if you hold an event where everyone is fully vaccinated — particularly if it's indoors — that the event is going to be safer," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "If you have unvaccinated people in there, even though they pose the greatest risk to themselves, there will be some fully vaccinated individuals that may not be optimally protected." 

A digital passport doesn't just make an event or business safer — it also streamlines the process of verifying that people are vaccinated, Dr. Stanley Weiss, professor in the Department of Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and in the Department of Epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life. "Right now, it can be cumbersome to check and that can dissuade places from trying to require vaccination to use their facilities," he says. "No one wants to create a system with more lines and wait times. Something like Excelsior Pass just makes that easy."

Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. "A vaccination passport doesn't change the vaccination status of people but it's less cumbersome than looking at people's vaccination cards," he tells Yahoo Life. "That can make it easier to conduct activities that want to verify vaccination status."

Where are digital vaccine passports the most useful?

Every state has different laws when it comes to allowing businesses and venues to restrict access based on a person's vaccination status. Some, like Florida, prohibit it. But, in certain areas, it's become more common to have vaccination requirements to get into a concert or certain sections in an arena. "A vaccine passport might be helpful if there was a vaccinated-only section that lets you not wear a mask," Adalja says. 

Russo says vaccine passports can also be helpful in places that don't allow the unvaccinated entry or limit how many unvaccinated people can enter, like cruises. "In New York, you also need to be fully vaccinated to attend some music festivals," he says. 

But Adalja says that the biggest potential use of vaccine passports is for international travel. Meaning, scanning your vaccine passport could allow you to quickly enter a different country that has tight vaccination requirements.

What limitations do digital passports have?

There are a few. For starters, it's not always seamless to get them. Russo, who lives in New York state, points out that he has to have his information uploaded to the Excelsior Pass because he was vaccinated through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "My primary care physician has to manually upload my information into the system," he says, noting that takes time and effort.

The Excelsior Pass website points out that not everyone is automatically put in the system, writing, "some entities that are not under the regulatory authority of the State of New York — [such as] federal entities, first nations and jurisdictions outside of New York State — may not report into these systems, which may make a Pass unavailable at this time." 

A digital passport on a national level would also be difficult because "there is no national system for recording all of the vaccines that have all of the vaccination records together," Weiss says. 

There's a digital divide to consider, too. Digital vaccination passports can also be difficult for people who aren't tech-savvy to use, including the elderly. Still, Russo points out that many places that use digital vaccine passports will also accept paper proof of vaccination.

Overall, what do experts think of these?

Digital passports "incrementally add to the public health and safety," Russo says. Having "valid documentation of a person's vaccination status" is important, Weiss says. "It's a step toward encouraging people to get vaccinated," he says. 

Digital vaccine passports can also help people feel more comfortable venturing out these days. "People who are going to an event want to know that everyone has been properly screened," Weiss says. 

But Adalja doesn't expect digital vaccination passports to stick around. "This will be a temporary thing," he says. "As cases drop and more people get vaccinated, even the unvaccinated will be at a low risk of getting COVID-19." Overall, Adalja says, "people need to learn how to risk-adjust to COVID-19 as a respiratory virus."

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