On Monday, TV personality Dr. Drew tweeted his opposition to COVID-19 vaccine passports, saying, “These vaccine passports segregate people and strip them of their freedom to travel internationally. 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, he walked 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 verifying they've been vaccinated against certain diseases. And many public health experts say such proof will be key to getting life back to normal while preventing future COVID-19 outbreaks.
“People have suffered for over a year, and they 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 return to the workplace. Vaccine passports offer a pathway to a more rapid 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. The European Union is likely to launch them in June. Israel, which leads major nations in vaccines administered so far, has already introduced one. China has one too. The UK is debating its own version. New York state 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, chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — has so far made clear it won’t lead efforts to produce a national vaccine passport. Instead, it is working to corral the more than a dozen versions being developed in the private sector.
Many Republican leaders have balked at such measures, suggesting they would constitute a governmental overreach. On Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning the use of COVID-19 vaccination passports in the state. On Sunday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told CNN that he also opposed them. On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joined in.
“The passport is a good idea,” Howard Markel, a pediatrician and medical historian, told BuzzFeed News. “How it has become politicized is very disturbing and difficult for people in public health to understand.”
That politicization has had a real impact. A recent poll found that only 50% of US residents would support a voluntary document that verifies vaccination.
The debate in the US is in many ways a rerun of those about lockdowns and contact tracing. Should people in the US accept restrictions on their personal liberty in the name of public health? Will these temporary measures stay around long after they are needed? Will people's privacy be protected? But the idea of vaccine passports is nothing new: The US already has a patchwork of private and public entities that require people to show they have been vaccinated.
“We already keep records of vaccinations in our medical records. Schools keep records of kids. Many hospitals keep them for their staff. These should be familiar,” Gostin said.
To travel internationally, many people already have to prove they have been vaccinated. To enter the US, immigrants must provide a record of vaccination against diseases — 14 in all — including hepatitis A and B, two types of influenza, polio, and chickenpox. Records are kept in a booklet issued by the World Health Organization. The US Armed Forces, which sends its members all over the world, requires around a dozen vaccinations depending on where a person is deployed.
Proof of vaccination is also required to enroll kids in school in all 50 states. In Florida, where DeSantis is governor, children in kindergarten through 12th grade are required to be vaccinated against six diseases. California and Texas each require seven. Since vaccination requirements for schools are handled at the state level — there is no federal mandate — many states allow personal belief or religious exemptions for parents to opt out. California is among the states that removed such exemptions after a dangerous measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in 2015 hit the state.
For as long as there have been vaccines, public health officials have required people to prove they have received them. As historian Jordan E. Taylor wrote in Time magazine, beginning in the 19th century, US authorities mandated that people show that they had been vaccinated against smallpox. Immigration officials required proof of vaccination at Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in San Francisco. Businesses mandated it as a condition of employment. And during local outbreaks, police would demand people show they had been vaccinated.
There are real concerns about vaccine passports. Some people worry about their digital rights or invasion of privacy. But Gostin, who coauthored a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the possible ethical issues, said vaccine passports would contain very little information. “In many ways vaccine passports protect your privacy. They don't require you to disclose any information, other than if you got a vaccine or not,” he wrote.
Others raise doubts about the fairness of requiring proof of vaccination in the US, since so far Black and Latinx communities have been vaccinated at disproportionately low rates. Experts take that seriously but suggested that those concerns will diminish as vaccines become more widely available.
“Equity can't be an afterthought,” Gostin said. “We can't have passports while there's vaccine scarcity. Within a month or two, the vaccines will be chasing the people, not the reverse. Everyone will have a fair shot at getting it.”
Public health experts stressed that it’s understandable if people feel unsure about vaccine passports and encouraged them to speak with their healthcare providers if they had questions.
“My recommendation is to consult your doctor or the websites of the WHO or the CDC,” said Markel. “Have a good conversation with your doctor. We don't want to bully people.”
Correction: Proof of vaccination is required for people immigrating to the US. A previous version of this story said it was required for all travelers.