Vaccine passports offer public health benefits, but also stir debate


Family breadwinner gives good health short shrift

Julia May, director of operations for the Portland outdoor concert venue Thompson’s Point, said if there was a viable system to require patrons to prove they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19, staff there would consider using it.

“I think we are a long way off from having all the answers on this one, but if we continue to put community health on a pedestal – as I think it’s our obligation to do moving forward – it’s a conversation that needs to be had for both guests and staff alike,” she said.

Vaccine passports, or certifications, have been discussed since before vaccines were even authorized for use, but those conversations have been elevated in recent weeks as the world looks to recover from a deadly and economically crippling pandemic.

The major selling point is economic: If everyone who attends a concert, sporting event or other large gathering could show proof of vaccination, restrictions could conceivably be lifted without risking public health. If everyone who travels – especially internationally – could show they have been vaccinated, the risk that they might spread the virus, or one of its variants, lessens significantly.

Still, the idea faces criticism. Some argue it’s an invasion of privacy rights to ask anyone about their health status. Others resist a system where only those who choose to get vaccinated get to enjoy certain societal benefits.

The idea has exposed a sharp political divide. Days after the Biden administration confirmed that it has been discussing vaccine verification with private companies, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he would use his emergency power to prevent any business from requiring proof of vaccine. Others are likely to follow.

Some states are embracing the idea. New York has created the Excelsior Pass, which can be used at major entertainment venues like Madison Square Garden and Albany’s Times Union Center. The pass was developed through a partnership with IBM, and can be downloaded as a smartphone app or printed out. Users input information about where and when they got the vaccine; once it’s verified, the pass can be used. It will be offered to other businesses and venues that want to participate as well.

Gov. Janet Mills could implement a similar system, but there are no plans to do so. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that he and health commissioner Jeanne Lambrew have discussed the idea and agreed it has merits, but he stopped short of embracing it.

“That approach … is not without concern,” Shah said. “There are significant concerns about data privacy, as well as significant concerns about equity. If the passport presupposes that you have to be vaccinated, have we really done a good job getting those folks vaccinated in the first place? I think that’s why right now our focus is on getting folks who are eligible in the door for vaccinations.”

TEMPORARY MEASURE

Proof of vaccination is not a new idea. International travelers once had to carry certificates showing they’d been vaccinated against typhoid, cholera, smallpox and more. Even today, people traveling to certain countries must prove they’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he thinks vaccine passports are a good idea and that the concerns are misplaced. People give more data to their iPhone or FitBit, he said.

Also, immunization registries already exist for things like measles, he said.

But Adalja also said if vaccine passports become a reality, it’ll be a temporary measure until herd immunity against COVID-19 is reached.

“What I think will probably happen is that it’ll just be something available that some businesses choose to use and others may not,” he said, adding that it could be an extra incentive for people who might be hesitant to get vaccinated. “I do think the fact that people see options open up to those who are vaccinated is good. It’s also fair to people who are vaccinated. The virus treats them differently, so why shouldn’t they be treated differently?”

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said there are still a lot of unknowns at this point, which might explain some of the pushback.

“I think the concept of trying to incentivize everyone to get vaccinated is important. The real question is in how they are going to be used,” he said. “We should have some way to demonstrate vaccinations and it should be standardized. But what things will people be required to provide proof of vaccination for?”

Horsburgh said although he doesn’t think government or businesses should mandate vaccines, they do have an obligation to ensure safety of customers and staff. In order to accomplish that, he suggested that in lieu of a vaccine, people could instead provide proof of a negative test.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated, OK, there might be a reason, but there are other options for you to prove you’re safe,” he said. If people have to keeping taking a test to go everywhere, Horsburgh said many might opt to just get vaccinated.

One of the biggest concerns might be what role government will have in any passport system. The United Kingdom is exploring creating a system that would allow vaccine pass holders to travel freely and attend hospitality and entertainment events. The European Union is set to unveil this week a proposed “digital green certificate” that could allow people traveling within EU countries to skip restrictions if they have been fully vaccinated.

And some countries – Belize and Iceland among them – are welcoming tourists from other countries if they can provide proof of vaccination.

Since there is no official or standardized system yet, some businesses and venues are permitting individuals to use the CDC-issued vaccination record as proof, although there are concerns that those cards are too easy to forge or fabricate.

The Biden administration, while it supports the idea, doesn’t want government to take the lead.

“The right way is that it should be private, the data should be secure, the access to it should be free, it should be available digitally and in paper, and in multiple languages, and it should be open source,” White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said at a White House briefing last month.

However, the lack of a centralized system could lead to a piecemeal approach. Already there are private sector measures underway. More and more airlines are signing up for Travel Pass through the International Air Travel Association, which helps passengers manage their travel plans and provide airlines and governments with proof that they have been vaccinated or tested for COVID-19. So far, no airlines are requiring vaccinations, although that could change. The U.S. CDC announced Friday that air travel for vaccinated people was safe.

Some cruise industries are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test.

The World Health Organization still advises against proof of vaccination “as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission.” Other challenges, WHO argues, include accommodating the many different vaccines and their effectiveness, particularly since some vaccines have not received worldwide approval, and making sure the information is secure and not easily hacked or counterfeited.

There is also the question of how to handle children, who have not yet been approved for vaccines.

CAUTION IN MAINE

Many Maine industry leaders are cautious about the idea.

Geoff Iacuessa, president and general manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, said he sees the value of opening up Hadlock Field, even partially, to patrons who can show proof of vaccination.

Under current state guidelines, the franchise is seating people in pods that must be 6 feet apart, which limits total attendance to just under 30 percent capacity, or 2,000 fans.

But if proof of vaccination were an option, Iacuessa said Hadlock could potentially open up to more people.

“It has come up in conversations as a good idea and a good theory,” he said. “I’m not sure how close it is, but it’s something we’d embrace as a way to open up capacity.”

May, at Thompson’s Point in Portland, said a fully vaccinated couple attended a concert last week and it allowed the venue to test out what a vaccine verification system might look like.

“Although being fully vaccinated in a room of non-fully vaccinated people means that the same restrictions and COVID-19 guidance apply, they were kind enough to allow us to run through the processes we have put in place for vetting that information,” she said. “It was a good test of the systems we have developed over the past few months as the environment has changed with the vaccine rollout.”

Alex Gray of Waterfront Concerts, which books shows at venues in Bangor, Portland, Westbrook and elsewhere, said although Gov. Mills recently relaxed guidelines for outdoor gatherings, not much has changed for his industry. A national act isn’t going to come to Maine to get paid “33 cents on the dollar” because a facility can’t operate at or near capacity, he said.

“If it’s done right, it’s probably great,” Gray said of a vaccine passport system. “As a whole, it’s a romantic idea, but I don’t think it works, especially in America. It’s a civil liberties question.”

As for Maine’s hospitality industry, there doesn’t appear to be much of a push to implement a vaccine passport system.

Steve Hewins, executive director of Hospitality Maine’s Education Foundation, said under current guidelines, residents of New England states can travel to Maine without having to quarantine or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Residents outside of New England still do, but Hewins said they now have a third option where they can check off on a form that they have been vaccinated.

“There is no groundswell of support in having an official system,” he said.


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