Denmark is a country that has intro­duced COVID-19 vaccine pass­ports. | Flickr

Imagine that you are about to enter a restaurant. As you walk in, the host taps impa­tiently at an adjacent sign. You fumble with your pocket until you retrieve your phone and scan a barcode. The host moves aside. You make an audible sigh as you walk into the restaurant. You’re relieved. 

The highly encoded barcode on your phone was pro­duced by an app and carries one piece of infor­mation: your vac­ci­nation status. 

Vaccine “pass­ports,” while not entirely unprece­dented, are being pro­posed as a method of fighting the spread of COVID-19. Their presence in the national con­ver­sation has been growing steadily since December when the Pfizer vaccine was approved.

Coun­tries around the world, such as Denmark and Germany, are already pro­viding fed­erally-backed vac­ci­nation pass­ports, leading to the inevitable question: what about the United States?

As the United States vac­ci­nation rates approach 25% according to John Hopkins Uni­versity, busi­nesses and worried con­sumers have raised the issue of pro­viding a reliable method to prove whether or not a person has been vac­ci­nated. The solution they have come up with is a digital passport of sorts. 

The vaccine passport, according to an article pub­lished in the Wash­ington Post, would access infor­mation about your COVID-19 vac­ci­nation status, verify your identity, and provide a barcode showing others you’ve been vaccinated. 

As more and more Amer­icans are being vac­ci­nated, the con­ver­sation about vaccine pass­ports has exploded. Polit­i­cally and tech­no­log­i­cally the idea poses a few problems.

On March 30, 2021, the Biden admin­is­tration assured Amer­icans that the federal gov­ernment will not mandate or create vaccine pass­ports, instead, they will be entirely privatized. 

“Unlike other parts of the world, the gov­ernment here is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport, nor a place to hold the data of cit­izens. We view this as some­thing the private sector is doing and will do,” Andy Slavitt, the acting director for the Centers for Medicare and Med­icaid Ser­vices, said on March 29 during a COVID-19 White House briefing.

The private sector, however, is failing to offer a viable vaccine passport.

In late March, New York launched an early version of vaccine pass­ports called “The Excelsior Pass.” The­o­ret­i­cally, the app would allow people to return to normal activ­ities by ver­i­fying that they have been vac­ci­nated. In reality, it has been a disaster.

Users of the Excelsior app have to have the latest ver­sions of iPhone or Android oper­ating systems; the app doesn’t accept out of state vac­ci­na­tions; in-state vac­ci­na­tions require you to obtain a vaccine pass more than 14 days but under 90 days since your last dose; and the pass must be renewed every 30 days. Not only that, but it takes two weeks for the app to rec­ognize your second dose.

Even if all these problems could be solved, the issue of security remains. The Excelsior Pass claims to be oper­ating on a secure database, but their identity ver­i­fi­cation system is easy to hack.

Com­monPass, another company seeking to create a working passport system, insists that it does not store infor­mation, according to the same Wash­ington Post article.

Ideally, infor­mation would not be stored any­where, and your phone would simply have a QR code ver­i­fying your vac­ci­nation and storing that infor­mation locally to avoid hackers. 

Even if the infor­mation is able to be kept private there is still the issue of whether or not requiring a vaccine passport vio­lates the Health Insurance Porta­bility and Account­ability Act.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Ser­vices, no one can demand private health infor­mation without the individual’s willing consent.

Even once tech­no­logical and privacy issues are settled, there are still political questions.

On April 2, Florida Gov­ernor Ron DeSantis issued an exec­utive order that blocks private busi­nesses from requiring infor­mation such as vac­ci­nation or test records, citing freedom and privacy as the basis for his actions.

“It’s com­pletely unac­ceptable for either the gov­ernment or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of a vaccine just simply to be able to par­tic­ipate in normal society,” he said during a press con­ference on March 29.

Texas Gov­ernor Greg Abbott did the same on April 6, banning the state gov­ernment and some private entities from requiring a vaccine passport.

Other gov­ernors, such as Kim Reynolds in Iowa, Pete Ricketts in Nebraska, and Bill Lee in Ten­nessee have stated their oppo­sition to such efforts.

Although the vaccine “passport” may sound like an attractive idea, it poses dif­ficult tech­no­logical and societal problems that will have to be resolved before it could become a widely accepted key to normality.