COVID Vaccine Passports Are Starting to Roll Out—Here's How They'll Work

Get ready for the next phase of pandemic life.

The Biden administration is reportedly developing a national coronavirus "vaccine passport" program, which would allow people to prove they've been vaccinated before entering some private venues that have been closed during the pandemic—such as sports arenas, movie theaters, and restaurants. A vaccine passport could also be used for international travel.

This hasn't been officially confirmed by the White House, but several officials spoke to The Washington Post on condition of anonymity, saying that the administration is pushing efforts by federal agencies and private companies to develop the program. The officials said the effort "has been driven largely by arms of the Department of Health and Human Services, including an office devoted to health information technology."

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Other reports say the White House will offer behind-the-scenes support to private-sector tech companies that are working to develop digital passport apps, which will certify if a person has been fully vaccinated against COVID, according to a March 31 report on

However the Biden Administration plans to participate in the development of vaccine passports, but some states are doing it on their own. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced the April 2 launch of the Excelsior Pass—a free, voluntary digital app developed in partnership with IBM that will verify if an individual user is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or has recently tested negative for the illness. It comes after two successful pilot demonstrations and a beta test involving thousands of New Yorkers, and it makes the state the first in the US to formally launch a COVID-19 passport.

According to AP News, the Excelsior Pass app is similar to a mobile airline boarding pass, using a secure QR code that can be stored in a smartphone or printed out. Private developers told the Post that this format is likely to be the form adopted by other vaccine passport programs, meaning that users who don't have smartphones can print codes on paper.

Many other countries are considering a similar initiative. The European Union has announced a "Digital Green Certificate," which will be valid in all EU member states and will show whether a carrier has been vaccinated, tested negative, or recovered from the virus.

The combination of using a digitally encrypted data app and paper vaccination identification promotes equality, points out public health expert Carol A. Winner, MPH, who founded the Give Space movement in 2017. "We are accustomed to modifying our identification processes, such as requirements for travel after 9/11, and even earlier for health reasons," Winner tells Health. "For example, in the mid-1900's, the international certificate or 'Yellow Card' was implemented for proof of vaccine or preventative treatment for yellow fever. We successfully use paper passports and ID cards for safely navigating travel, banking, and even getting a marriage license—so we can successfully implement a passport identification process for protecting our own health and that of the public."

But the first step to a successful rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine passport is equal access to the vaccine itself, Winner adds. "Singling people out without the opportunity to get vaccinated is discriminatory and will lead to ethical and legal challenges," she says. "Leveling the playing field is always a precondition to any successful public health initiative."

The challenges of developing a vaccine passport

Launching a program on this scale is not easy. According to the Post, US officials are facing a number of challenges, including making sure a person's data remains private. Forgeries are already starting to appear, so it's crucial that the systems can't be easily hacked and passports can't be counterfeited.

"Personal health data is highly protected in the US, and although individuals are comfortable sharing intimate details on social media down to their skin rash, being forced to do so will be politicized," Winner says. "We also have to recognize that no one knows of our trip to the local CVS to get a vaccine, except CVS. Questions will have to be answered and processes put in place to ensure validity and proof of having received the vaccine, other than a piece of paper from CVS."

Some people may also choose not to get vaccinated, such as pregnant women. (Though more research needs to be done to confirm the safety of the vaccine during pregnancy, the CDC says that based on what's known right now, the vaccine is "unlikely to pose a specific risk to people who are pregnant.") So exceptions will have to be made for those individuals, Winner adds.

Certain exceptions aside, she sees vaccine passports as the expansion of existing vaccination certifications required today to protect the health of the public. "Our child must have a proof-of-vaccine to go to school, our brother to join the military, and our sister to work as a health care provider," she says. "Is it fair for us to have it now for COVID-19 to get on a plane or go to the gym? Yes. As we have learned throughout history, the most successful response to danger is one appropriate to the level of threat, and with our COVID-19 global death rate moving toward 3 million, a vaccine passport cannot come fast enough."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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