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Vaccine passport: Everywhere you could need one -- and where you wouldn't

You already don't have to prove your vaccination against COVID-19 for everyday activities like grocery shopping and dining out, but big public events may be another matter.

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New York state's Excelsior Pass is one of the first of its kind in the US -- but it hasn't been a smooth rollout.

Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, strategizing for strict lockdowns is slowly giving way to planning an appointment for your coronavirus vaccination. Inoculation promises the ability to not only travel safely again, but also dance in a packed nightclub, see a movie or theater performance, go to the gym or watch a ballgame.

But how do you prove that you're vaccinated against COVID-19 to anyone asking? One idea is a vaccine passport, which would be a form of digital documentation with a QR code that would let border officials or other gatekeepers quickly verify that you've had the shot or shots. 

Requiring vaccinations for traveling internationally or taking a cruise is not new, and it's already happening for COVID-19. But that's not the only proposed use. Proponents say they also could let you resume more everyday "domestic" activities that are restricted because of the pandemic. That is new territory, and the concept is quickly attracting controversy. Could businesses really require proof of a vaccination that's strictly voluntary? Here's what we know about the issue so far.

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Will you need a vaccine passport for big sporting events? What about international travel?

Sarah Tew/CNET

What is being proposed regarding using a vaccination passport in the US?

At this point, nothing concrete. What's certain is you won't need one for personal, necessary activities like going to the supermarket. The most strident opponents of vaccine passports are baselessly warning that that could happen -- sadly, passports have already turned into a partisan issue -- but no one is seriously proposing it. Employers may require it of their workers, which I'll cover later. 

Where might a vaccine passport be used?

The outlook for the middle ground between shopping and international travel is murkier. Consider restaurants or gyms. Making sure that customers have been vaccinated may feel advantageous for a restaurant owner eager to return to full-capacity dining while protecting the health of employees. Same for a gym owner hoping to resume exercise or spin classes with a bunch of heavily breathing people jammed together. Promoters of large business conferences, concerts, basketball or hockey games and other events where you're inside with hundreds of people for long periods may be interested, as well.

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Those scenarios are plausible and likely legal, but Terry Jones, founder of Kayak and Travelocity and a former CIO of American Airlines, thinks making these situations passport-required is unlikely in the US. Business conventions, for example, take months to plan, and by the time something like CES 2022 happens, COVID in the US may be under control. Jones also thinks it's unlikely for domestic US flights. "On an everyday scale that won't be implemented," he said. "I think we have enough division here around this issue that most places won't implement them."

That means the outlook at this point is developing. Some restaurants or events could require proof of vaccination for customers, but they'd largely be in regions of the country that are amenable to their use. And even in those areas, there'd likely be a restaurant down the street that won't have that restriction. Customers will decide which mandates they'll tolerate, and business will adjust. Or we'll see a hybrid model where either a vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will be accepted (more on that later).

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What are the roadblocks to using vaccine passports?

That political division about passports is what will prevent the idea from taking hold, at least on a large scale. While some states are open to passports, others are staunchly opposed (see below). And without a national mandate -- the Biden administration has said that passports are a matter for the private sector (also see below) -- no business will be compelled to adopt them. 

Beyond politics, there's the issue of standardization. Dozens of passports are in development, which will take time to sort out. While there are a limited number of cruise lines, there are tens of thousands of event venues in the US. For vaccine passports to have any traction in that world, there would need to be consensus from both artists and the venues on how passports would work and which apps would be accepted. 

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Are digital vaccine passports used anywhere domestically?

Israel, which is leading the world in vaccination rates, has launched a "green passport" that gives holders access to places like gyms, theaters, hotels, concerts and synagogues. China and Japan are adopting them, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said his government is reviewing their use. 

New York state has announced an app called Excelsior Pass, which shows your vaccination proof or the results of a negative COVID-19 test. The app is in use at theaters and venues like Madison Square Garden (where fans must also show a photo ID). The idea is that a scannable app, which links to a state database proving your status, will be easier for a doorperson to check than reading thousands of paper vaccination cards. The hope also is that an app would be less prone to forgery. But the app hasn't been without problems -- The Daily Beast was able to make a fave version in 11 minutes

"The idea behind getting a vaccine credential is not that different from getting a paper card from CDC that you already have," MIT associate professor and PathCheck founder Ramesh Raskar told CNET's Claire Reilly (see video above). "It's digitally certified so that it cannot be tampered with... it only remains valid for one given person."

Hawaii also is developing a program that will allow travelers who have been vaccinated to skip COVID-19 testing or quarantine. 

What about vaccine passports for schools or work?

Several universities including Notre Dame, Brown, Cornell, Northeastern and Cleveland State will require either all students to be vaccinated for the academic year starting this autumn or just those living on campus. The mandate will likely extend across the country and to schools of all kinds once vaccines are approved for teens and children under 16. Most already require vaccination against other diseases, so adding COVID-19 to the mix wouldn't be a stretch.

Employers, particularly those in service industries, may mandate vaccination for workers, and they'd legally be permitted to require it, as long as they make accommodations for employees who are less trustful of vaccines and those who decline the vaccine for religious or cultural reasons.

Who is against the use of vaccine passports?

Using them as another culture war battle as they did with masks and lockdowns, Republican elected officials in particular are decrying any domestic use of vaccine passports as a violation of personal freedoms. One of the loudest critics has been Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who issued an executive order April 2 banning businesses and government agencies in the state from requiring vaccination passports. Texas Governor Greg Abbott followed with a similar order for the Lone Star State on April 6.

That kind of opposition will likely make the use of vaccine passports another stake in the fence that has divided red state and blue state during the coronavirus pandemic.

What is the federal government saying?

The Biden administration has said several times that it is not pushing for the use of vaccine passports domestically. "There are lots of ideas that will come from the private sector and nonprofits," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing on March 9. "We welcome those. But our focus from the federal government is on getting more people vaccinated, and that's where we feel we can use our resources best." On April 6 she put it more bluntly, "There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential." 

But that's not to say the federal government wouldn't get involved at all. 

Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said in a briefing on March 29 that the White House is leading an interagency process to ensure that any vaccine credentials meet some important criteria. That criteria includes equitable access to the passports (such as for people who don't own smartphones) and securing the privacy of user information.

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Don't pack your bags just yet. Make sure you know the local rules before you travel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Well, won't vaccine passports be unfair?

There's no question that everyone who wants a vaccine passport should be able to access and use one, regardless of what phone they have. But whether the passports are unfair to people that don't have one will depend on what they're being denied. Of course, you should be able to buy groceries. But as Jones sees it, things aren't as cut-and-dried when it comes to other activities. 

"If you say, 'I'm going to discriminate against you, because you didn't get a vaccine.' Well, OK, that's a discussion we should have," he said. "You should be able to get a bottle of milk, but you're not going to be able to go to France (the European Union is adopting a vaccine certification program). France doesn't care, they're not gonna let you in."

For a place that requires inoculation, it may come down to it also providing reasonable accommodation for the unvaccinated. For a restaurant, that could be outdoor dining. For a conference, that could be a virtual component.

Are there privacy concerns with vaccine passports?

Privacy advocates are concerned about the security of apps that will hold critical information about a user's health. But the vaccine passports in development are designed to hold only identifying information about you -- plus your vaccination status or the date and result of your last COVID-19 test. In other words, an app's data is not that much different from what's on the CDC-issued card.

What's important is to ensure that the passport doesn't hold any other health information. Jones said that's where we need to define what's private and what's not. "Certain health data should be greatly protected. A woman who's had very serious breast cancer, wouldn't want her employer necessarily to know … that makes sense," he said. "On the other hand, if someone finds out I've been vaccinated, I'm not sure that's a terrible thing. What is the downside?"

App developers will have to be able to link to state databases that hold vaccination records. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can access that information as well, but it does not hold its own records. Also, many app developers counter that they're securing the apps through blockchain technology, which means the data won't be stored in one place.

Privacy advocates also worry that the all of the times you use the app could then be turned into a record of everywhere you've been (something your phone already keeps track of). But Karen Gardner, chief marketing officer of security company SICPA, says that won't happen. "I fully appreciate the privacy concerns that many people have and one of the key things in helping to provide the assurance that your personal data is not going to get used inappropriately ... it's not going to be used to track every step you take."

What are the alternatives to vaccine passports?

A concept that is getting some traction is businesses accepting proof of vaccination or a recently negative COVID-19 test. That may be the way to satisfy the most people while protecting public health. The San Francisco Giants, for instance, have adopted that policy for home games.

Another option could be reserving higher-density seating for vaccinated people. On March 23 the Miami Heat said it was saving two lower sections for fans with "the jab" with just one empty seat between each person. They'll also enter the area through a dedicated door. 

Should we even call it a vaccination passport?

Using the term "passport" in a domestic sense is no doubt making some people nervous, and there have been calls to abandon the term for use at home. Semantics do matter, so vaccine pass, card or certification may be better terms.

If I get a vaccine passport, do I need to keep wearing a mask?

Yes. Social distancing and mask wearing are still absolutely essential for fighting the spread of the virus and protecting your health and the health of others. And they'll remain that way for months.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.