What a Vaccine Passport Really Is

These cards aren’t meant to last long or be carried around. They’re for personal reference. Some people have laminated them, but I wouldn’t know how to go about getting something laminated. Nor would I want to take a big, laminated card with me everywhere I go. Plus, it’s paper with handwriting on it. As official documents go, forgery wouldn’t exactly require a master. (You can already buy one online.)

This disjointed system presents a challenge as the United States reopens. Some places—such as hospitals and schools—will inevitably require staff or students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Already, Brown University and Rutgers have announced that all students must be vaccinated in order to attend the fall semester in person. The hope is that these sorts of requirements will allow schools to return to the normalcy that everyone so desperately wants. Given the unique circumstances of the moment—a still-acute crisis that continues to kill nearly 1,000 Americans every day—COVID-19 vaccine requirements will likely extend beyond schools and hospitals. In Israel, gyms and hotels already require proof of vaccination for employees and patrons. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that people will soon need proof of vaccination in order to enter a soccer stadium or pub. Enforcing such rules fairly requires a system for verifying vaccination status.

President Joe Biden has not endorsed vaccination requirements. In the U.S., such mandates will exist, but will be determined by individual businesses, industries, institutions, cities, and states. This patchwork approach will make reliable documentation only more necessary. If you travel domestically, you may need to prove your vaccination status to go into, say, a theater in New York City, even if your usual theater in Philadelphia doesn’t have such a rule. The people taking tickets at the door will need a centralized registry to check.

That registry may take the form of an app, a card, or a website. Ultimately, different areas and entities in the U.S. may end up using all three. While the federal government could offer an app that people might use if they wanted—particularly people who travel often between states—White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that the federal government will not maintain a centralized database of who has been vaccinated.

Vaccine passports, in some form, are going to be a basic necessity as the United States begins to crawl its way out of the pandemic. Nevertheless, the idea has staunch opponents. The recent Wall Street Journal op-ed called the idea of issuing vaccine passports “unjust and discriminatory,” and suggested that it would somehow lead young, healthy people to jump the line and snap up limited doses of vaccines so they could go to the movies. Such fraud and abuse may be incentivized in the very near term, but that potential will grow more far-fetched as the vaccines become available to more Americans. If passports are likely to incentivize anything, it’s vaccination. The perks of vaccination—say, free Krispy Kreme donuts for the rest of 2021—might be more appealing if a user-friendly system made them easier to claim each morning.

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