On Monday, TV personality Dr. Drew tweeted his opposition to COVID-19 vaccine passports, saying, “These vaccine passports separate people and deprive them of the freedom to travel abroad. Vaccinations are important and I encourage everyone to get the Covid vaccine, but how would you feel if international travel also required other vaccinations? “
On Tuesday, brought it back – but to thousands of people on Twitter, it seemed like a good question.
It is not.
While vaccine passports have emerged as the latest flashpoint in the COVID-19 pandemic, most people already have some form of documentation confirming that they have been vaccinated against certain diseases. And many public health experts say such evidence will be key to getting life back to normal by preventing future COVID-19 outbreaks.
“People have been suffering for over a year and want their lives back,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told BuzzFeed News. “They want to go to restaurants, see movies, travel to see their loved ones and go back to work. Vaccine passports offer a path to a faster and safer return to normal life. “
As vaccines become more widely distributed, the prospect of COVID-19 vaccine passports is becoming a reality for many people. It is likely that the European Union will launch them in June. Israel, which leads the main nations in vaccines administered so far, has already introduced one. China also has one. The UK is discussing its own version. The state of New York has introduced a voluntary “Excelsior Pass” that shows proof of vaccination or a negative test for access to sporting events, music venues and businesses. At least eight major airlines are working on a version of a coronavirus passport, as is Walmart.
More than 64 million people, or nearly 1 in 5 Americans, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 so far.
But the federal government – including Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – has so far made it clear that it will not lead efforts to produce a national vaccine passport. Instead, it is working to encompass the more than a dozen versions developed in the private sector.
Many Republican leaders have opposed such measures, suggesting that they would constitute over-government. Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning the use of COVID-19 vaccine passports in the state. Sunday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told CNN that he also opposed them. On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joined.
“The passport is a good idea,” Howard Markel, a pediatrician and medical historian, told BuzzFeed News. “The way it has become politicized is very disturbing and difficult for people in public health to understand.”
That politicization had a real impact. A recent survey found that only 50% of US residents would support a voluntary document that verifies vaccination.
The debate in the United States is in many ways a replica of those about blocking and contact tracing. Should people in the United States accept restrictions on their personal freedom in the name of public health? Will these temporary measures remain in place long after they are needed? Will people’s privacy be protected? But the idea of vaccine passports is nothing new: the United States already has a patchwork of public and private entities that require people to prove they have been vaccinated.
“We already keep vaccination records in our medical records. Schools keep records of children. Many hospitals keep them for their own staff. These should be familiar, ”Gostin said.
To travel abroad, many people must already prove that they have been vaccinated. To enter the United States, immigrants must provide a record of vaccinations against diseases – 14 in all – including hepatitis A and B, two types of flu, polio and chickenpox. The records are kept in a booklet issued by the World Health Organization. The US military, which sends its members all over the world, requires about a dozen vaccinations depending on where a person is deployed.
Proof of vaccination is also required to enroll children in school in all 50 states. In Florida, where DeSantis is governor, children from preschool through 12th grade must be vaccinated against six diseases. California and Texas require seven each. Because vaccination requirements for schools are managed at the state level – there is no federal mandate – many states allow parents to forgo personal belief or religious exemptions. California is among the states that have removed those exemptions after a dangerous measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in 2015 hit the state.
Since vaccines have existed, public health officials have required people to prove they received them. As historian Jordan E. Taylor wrote in Time magazine, starting in the 19th century, US authorities required people to prove they were vaccinated against smallpox. Immigration officials requested proof of vaccination at Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in San Francisco. Businesses imposed it as a condition for employment. And during local outbreaks, the police would ask people to show that they have been vaccinated.
There are real concerns about vaccine passports. Some people worry about their digital rights or the invasion of privacy. But Gostin, who co-authored an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on possible ethical issues, said vaccine passports would contain very little information. “In many ways vaccine passports protect your privacy. They do not require you to disclose any information, except whether you have a vaccine or not, “he wrote.
Others raise doubts about the fairness of requiring proof of vaccination in the United States, as Black and Latinx communities have so far been vaccinated at disproportionately low rates. Experts take this seriously, but suggest those concerns will lessen as vaccines become more widely available.
“Equity cannot be an afterthought,” Gostin said. “We cannot have passports as long as there is a shortage of vaccines. Within a month or two, vaccines will be chasing people, not the other way around. Everyone will have a good chance of getting it. “
Public health experts pointed out that it’s understandable if people don’t feel safe about vaccine passports and encouraged them to talk to their healthcare professionals if they have any questions.
“My recommendation is to consult your doctor or the WHO or CDC websites,” Markel said. “Have a good conversation with your doctor. We don’t want to intimidate people. “