COVID-19 Vaccine Passports: A Return to Life? Or An Invasion of Privacy?
May 07, 2021

Vaccine passports have quickly become the latest lightning rod in COVID-19 political discussions in the United States. Shortly after New York introduced their version — called the Excelsior Pass states began to take sides. Some are looking to create their own vaccine passport system, while others are proactively banning them. So, is a vaccine passport a return to life? Or is it an invasion of privacy?

The answer is: neither and both. It all depends on what each state means by “vaccine passport” and how it’s implemented. It also depends on whether anyone actually requires a passport. Few businesses, including airlines, have taken a stance on whether they will require vaccines.

What Is a Vaccine Passport?

Simply put, a “vaccine passport” is proof you’ve been vaccinated. Depending on the context, it could be a simple shot record or something more formal like a verified certificate or smartphone app. If a country or business (like a cruise line or concert venue) requires vaccination, your “passport” lets you get in.

New York's Excelsior Pass a type of vaccine passport

New York’s Excelsior Pass lets individuals share their vaccination status with participating businesses. Image from New York State. 

Asking people to show proof of vaccination isn’t new.

States have been requiring vaccination in the U.S. since the turn of the 20th century. They began as a way to stop smallpox outbreaks and have since been used to combat polio, measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases. School vaccination requirements exist in all 50 states in the U.S., and it’s not uncommon for certain employers (like hospitals, childcare facilities, or government agencies) to require their employees to be vaccinated.

Establishing a vaccine passport system wouldn’t change that.

Are Vaccine Passports Legal?

In general, yes. But whether it’s legal to issue (or ask for) proof of vaccination will depend a lot on where and how it’s done. Different laws govern government agencies and private businesses. And laws can vary from one place to the next. Some states, like Texas and Florida, have made it illegal for the states’ government agencies to mandate vaccine passports. 

In the U.S., private businesses have a lot of leeway in setting their own policies, especially when it comes to protecting the health and safety of their staff and patrons. That freedom generally includes having vaccination requirements, so long as they make exceptions for those who can’t safely get vaccinated for medical reasons or, in some cases, deeply held religious beliefs.

Vaccine passports can make it easier to verify someone’s vaccinated in a way that protects privacy. But if the state won’t issue them, then businesses are on their own to verify someone’s status.

Do Vaccine Passports Violate HIPAA or Patient Privacy?

No. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (or HIPAA) prevents healthcare providers from sharing protected health information without patients’ consent. But anyone can ask you to volunteer the info. And it’s perfectly legal for you to share your vaccination status with anyone you’d like. Many are already doing that on social media.

Will the U.S. Require Vaccine Passports? 

Many businesses are waiting to see what the federal government says, but the White House has stated there will not be a single, unified credential for vaccination. States and businesses can make their own decisions. Unfortunately, that means people will be left confused as to whether they need a passport from state to state or even business to business.

We’ve seen this scenario before with the introduction of immunization information systems (IIS), also known as vaccine registries. IIS collect information on which people have received recommended vaccinations for two primary reasons, to:

  • Help healthcare providers keep track of what vaccines patients might need if they’ve gone to multiple medical offices.
  • Identify people at risk of serious illness during a disease outbreak.

All of this information is kept private. And no one has to have their info in the systems if they don’t want it there.

Because the federal government didn’t issue development guidance to states in the 1990s, each state had to develop an IIS according to their own needs, wishes, and laws. As a result, IIS across the country are a patchwork of information. And few are able to communicate across state lines.

Bottom Line: Ignore the Scary Rhetoric.

The existence of vaccine passports doesn’t mean you’ll be forced to get the COVID vaccine or share your medical information if you don’t want to. They’re simply a way for places with vaccination requirements or restrictions in place to verify someone has been vaccinated or is otherwise immune.

If you live in New York or another state that is considering vaccine passports, our friends at Voices for Vaccines have created a video that demonstrates how passports might work in the real world.

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