Vaccine passports need close look
Allie Bohm and Wafaa El-Sadr
As more New Yorkers get vaccinated, businesses and governments are beginning to roll out vaccine passports, which require people to show proof of immunization to gain entry to concerts or sports events, eat at restaurants, or board airplanes.
We are all anxious to get back to doing things we took for granted a year ago, and vaccine passports may be a part of a return to social and economic activity. But if we are not careful, these passports could prevent people from doing critical activities like traveling to visit loved ones or accessing basic necessities while potentially creating a permanent surveillance system that scoops up our health information and tracks our every move.
Moreover, rolling out such passports while access to COVID-19 vaccines remains out of reach for many and without a carefully considered legal framework may cut the most vulnerable off from society.
Widely available vaccines must be a precondition for any vaccine passport. Before people are required to show proof that they have gotten a shot, those shots must be accessible to everyone. There are still countless stories of people who are eligible for a vaccine who nonetheless cannot get one.
Importantly, universal access requires more than having enough doses for all New Yorkers. Data show that Black and Latinx New Yorkers are getting vaccinated at significantly lower rates than white people.
To fix this, we must knock down language barriers, undertake intensive community outreach, and navigate any economic, geographical, or other hurdles that remain. We must ensure people who do not have access to the internet, the tech savvy, or the time to secure an appointment online can still get vaccinated.
We need to invest the resources to build vaccine confidence. This is especially true in communities where people have good reason to be skeptical of medical care based on a long history of racism.
We must also recognize that there will always be people who cannot get the vaccine because of medical contraindications to receiving the vaccines. Lawmakers must provide accommodations to ensure that those who cannot get the vaccine for medical reasons are not isolated from society.
Once vaccines are widely available, passports must be designed to be accessible for all and to protect people’s private information.
The digital nature of vaccine passports poses privacy concerns. Because vaccine passport proposals rely on presenting proof of your medical information in order to gain entry to public places, these passes will generate an intimate trail of information about where you go - information that can reveal a lot about who you are.
Without clear legal safeguards, vaccine passports could allow private companies to track an immense amount of information about where you spend your time, the people you spend it with, and your health status - a steep price that many people will have to pay to move about their communities.
This sort of pervasive tracking will land on certain communities differently. This is a particular risk for those who, whether for fear of deportation, criminalization, or any other reason, may be afraid to share personal information with the government or private companies.
Fortunately, lawmakers can put in place protections now that prevent these passports from becoming universal tracking devices. They should ensure that every business that requires the use of a vaccine passport regularly deletes any personal information it collects and that no personal information is transmitted back to a vaccine passport developer.
Legislators must also ensure that vaccine passports are specific to COVID-19, that their lifespan is limited to the current public health crisis, and that they are tethered to the best and most current public health information. As we learn more about COVID-19, the various vaccines, and the duration of immunity, any passport system must be constantly re-evaluated to ensure that it serves its intended purpose.
Finally, everyone must be able to use a passport. That means that passports must have an analog option for those who do not have or do not know how to use a smartphone.
Promisingly, New York’s Excelsior Pass does allow people to print out their pass. Legislators must ensure that every vaccine passport is required to come with an analog option.
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot come soon enough, and vaccine passports are likely to be a part of what comes next. But before they become ubiquitous, we need to make sure that these passes do not become another tool that disproportionately hurts the people who have suffered most throughout this pandemic.
Allie Bohm is policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. Wafaa El-Sadr is professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University, director of ICAP at Columbia University, and director of the Global Health Initiative at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
This piece was originally published in the Albany Times Union.