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Privacy, Passports, and Public Health

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Privacy, Passports, and Public Health

April 14, 2021

It is nearly impossible to read or listen to the news these days without seeing or hearing something about “vaccine passports.” Do we need them? Do we want them? Are they happening regardless, and if so, where and when?

As the conversation swirls around the utility and benefit of a simple, fast way to see if individuals – students, customers, employees – have been vaccinated against COVID-19, the legal and ethical implications of any such system have turned the whole issue into, as the New York Times said this week, a “cultural flashpoint.”

A vaccine passport is a standardized credential that would allow people to prove that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. They have been oft-discussed in relation to travel, and airlines such as Jet Blue and United have already implemented them on select flights through an application called Common Pass. Universities including Northeastern, Brown, Cornell, and Rutgers have all said in recent weeks that they will require proof of vaccination in order to allow students to return to campus in the fall. And New York has rolled out the “Excelsior Pass,” described by the state as “a free, fast and secure way to present digital proof of Covid-19 vaccination” in the event that large venues such as sports arenas or concert halls require proof of an entrant’s vaccination status. 

Whether or not such a requirement is legal depends on whether or not the entity implementing it is public or private – in some senses, this can be seen as akin to a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” edict by local businesses. Regardless of its legality, however, there are significant and legitimate concerns that the credential, or lack thereof, could be used against people unfairly, or in a manner that promotes or results in discrimination or bias.

After the governor of Texas used his executive power Tuesday to ban the state and organizations that receive funding from the state from requiring vaccine passports, over concerns that they intrude on “personal freedoms,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made clear that the federal government “is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential…There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.” Citing concerns related to equity, the World Health Organization also said on Tuesday that it currently does not support mandatory proof of vaccination for international travel.

Regardless, Walmart, which is the country’s largest private employer, has already begun offering electronic applications verifying the vaccination status of patients who receive their vaccines at Walmart, and there are at least 17 different vaccine passport development initiatives currently underway, according to the Washington Post, for use by businesses who want to restrict admission to those who have been vaccinated.

Is your head hurting yet?? In an effort to help increase understanding of the current landscape and the legal, privacy, and ethical issues at play, eHI is hosting a webinar on April 27 at 2:00 EDT. Join us to have all your questions answered (we hope!) – register and submit your questions below. 

 

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