Likely Legal, ‘Vaccine Passports’ Emerge as the Next Coronavirus Divide (Published 2021) (2023)


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Businesses and universities want fast, easy ways to see if students and customers are vaccinated, but conservative politicians have turned “vaccine passports” into a cultural flash point.

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Likely Legal, ‘Vaccine Passports’ Emerge as the Next Coronavirus Divide (Published 2021) (1)

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Adam Liptak

(Video) Vaccine passports: Benefits, challenges and ethical concerns | COVID-19 Update for April 22, 2021

WASHINGTON — Cathay Pacific airlines, convinced that digital proof of coronavirus vaccination will bring about the return of safe international travel, asked its pilots and crew to try out a new mobile app that showed their vaccination status on a recent flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.

New York has rolled out “Excelsior Pass,” billed by the state as “a free, fast and secure way to present digital proof of Covid-19 vaccination” in case reopening sports and entertainment venues require proof of attendees’ status.

And Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, is offering electronic verification apps to patients vaccinated in its stores so they “can easily access their vaccine status as needed,” the company says.

Around the country, businesses, schools and politicians are considering “vaccine passports” — digital proof of vaccination against the coronavirus — as a path to reviving the economy and getting Americans back to work and play. Businesses especially fear that too many customers will stay away unless they can be assured that the other patrons have been inoculated.

But the idea is raising charged legal and ethical questions: Can businesses require employees or customers to provide proof — digital or otherwise — that they have been vaccinated when the coronavirus vaccine is ostensibly voluntary?

Can schools require that students prove they have been injected with what is still officially an experimental prophylaxis the same way they require long-approved vaccines for measles and polio? And finally, can governments mandate vaccinations — or stand in the way of businesses or educational institutions that demand proof?

Legal experts say the answer to all of these questions is generally yes, though in a society so divided, politicians are already girding for a fight. Government entities like school boards and the Army can require vaccinations for entry, service and travel — practices that flow from a 1905 Supreme Court ruling that said states could require residents to be vaccinated against smallpox or pay a fine.

“A community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the 1905 case.

Private companies, moreover, are free to refuse to employ or do business with whomever they want, subject to only a few exceptions, ones that do not include vaccination status. And states can probably override that freedom by enacting a law barring discrimination based on vaccination status.

But as the nation struggles to emerge from the worst public health crisis in a century, the arrival of digital vaccine verification apps — a modern version of the World Health Organization’s “yellow card” that provides international proof of yellow fever vaccination — has generated intense debate over whether proof of vaccination can be required at all.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas became the latest Republican governor to issue an executive order barring state agencies and private entities receiving funds from the state from requiring proof of vaccination. The World Health Organization, citing equity concerns, also said on Tuesday that it currently did not support mandatory proof of vaccination for international travel.

Others are moving forward. Universities like Rutgers, Brown and Cornell have already said they will require proof of vaccination for students this fall. The Miami Heat this week became the first team in the N.B.A. to open special “vaccinated only” sections.

And though businesses have yet to announce outright bans on unvaccinated clientele, some states and technology firms are preparing: At least 17 companies or nonprofits are developing websites or apps that might be used by sporting venues, restaurants and other businesses seeking to keep their customers and employees safe, according to Joel White, the executive director of the Health Innovation Alliance, a broad coalition of health providers, tech companies, employers and insurers.

Airlines including JetBlue and United are also testing the “CommonPass” app, developed by The Commons Project, a nonprofit trust dedicated to using technology to help people control their personal information. Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s major carriers, opposes making proof of vaccination mandatory for air travel but would like a clean, easy way for travelers to show their status. Other countries may require proof of vaccination, and the apps can also be used to prove negative coronavirus test results, which the United States requires for international travelers.

“On the face of things, requiring proof of vaccination seems a lot like, ‘No shoes, no shirt, no service,’” said Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard.

(Video) 'A controversial one': Public react to Covid vaccine passports idea

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already provides everyone who is vaccinated a card that can serve as proof, and people can always carry paper records of negative coronavirus tests. But industry leaders liken digital vaccination apps to security screening services like TSA PreCheck; it is not required, but it might make the travel experience smoother.

In Israel, a “Green Pass” is already in place that allows vaccinated citizens to go to restaurants, concerts and sporting events.

Backers of digital vaccination cards are pressing the Biden administration to become involved, at least by setting standards for privacy and for verifying the accuracy of the records.

The White House is clearly skittish.

“The government is not now nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

She promised that the administration would provide some form of guidance — most likely in the form of questions and answers — about privacy, security, discrimination and concerns.

Last week, the chief technology officer of the Department of Health and Human Services held a conference call with state and local health officials, who are mystified by the administration’s reticence.

“It’s going to be necessary to have this, and there is going to have to be some kind of system where it’s verified,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “I think everybody in our network is a little bit perplexed by the way the federal government seems to be at arm’s-length with this.”


One arm of the government has offered some help: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has told employers that they can mandate coronavirus vaccination because public health comes first. If an employee cannot get vaccinated because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, and the company cannot make an accommodation, the agency said, “then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace.”

Conservatives and libertarians, though, are resisting such mandates. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on Friday signed an executive order barring businesses from requiring patrons or customers to show vaccine documentation, under penalty of losing state contracts. Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, said on Sunday that he too opposed the idea.

That has left technology executives like Stanley Campbell in the lurch. His firm, EagleForce, which specializes in health records, has created “myVax,” a digital platform that, he said, might even be used by farmers to screen their workers. Mr. Campbell, a Florida native, pitched the idea to Florida’s agriculture commissioner last week — a day before Mr. DeSantis issued his ban.

“It’s not really a political football, which is what they keep using this thing as,” said Mr. Campbell, whose wife, Cheryl Campbell, is also a health care technology expert and recently joined the Biden administration. “It’s sad because Florida could lead the nation in this if we just took a minute to talk and think it through.”

Mr. DeSantis’s order has already altered the back-to-school plans for Nova Southeastern University, based in Fort Lauderdale, which had announced a policy for returning students to be vaccinated. The university’s president and chief executive officer, George Hanbury, said the university was reviewing the order and planned to follow it.

(Video) COVID PASSPORTS: Will You Need a Vaccine Passport for Travel in 2021?

“We’re not trying to do anything but protect our students,” he said.

Republican critics say vaccine passports raise the specter of centralized databases of vaccinated people, which they view as a government intrusion on privacy.

“A vaccine passport—a unified, centralized system for providing or denying access to everyday activities like shopping and dining—would be a nightmare for civil liberties and privacy,” Justin Amash, a former Republican congressman who is now a libertarian, wrote on Twitter last week.

But, in fact, every state already has a database, or an “immunization registry.” And under “data use agreements,” the states are required to share their registries with the C.D.C., though the agency de-identifies the information and not all states have agreed to provide it.

And digital vaccine cards are not new. STChealth, an Arizona-based health care technology company, created an app called MyIR — my immunization record — about five years ago with the idea of helping parents who need their children’s vaccination records for school or camp. The app, which is free, connects with the immunization registries of five states and can verify vaccination data for those states’ residents.

“We never built it as a digital passport kind of thing because that wasn’t an issue at the time,” the company’s chief executive officer, Mike Popovich, said in an interview. “But here in Arizona, I got my Covid shot and four hours later, I could use that to take a look at my record that had been reported to the state information system — and there it was.”

With apps already proliferating, the Health Innovation Alliance sent a letter last month to Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, calling on the administration to set standards. Mr. White, the organization’s executive director, said the group had not gotten an answer.

He said he understood his fellow Republicans’ concerns, but disagreed.

“We live in a free society where people are free to work or not, to go to concerts or not, to go to restaurants or not,” Mr. White said. “And when you are dealing with a highly infectious disease that is transmissible particularly in closed spaces — and that can kill you — it is not unreasonable for businesses in a free society to protect their employees and protect their patrons by asking people if they have been vaccinated.”

Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.

A correction was made on

April 6, 2021


An earlier version of this article misspelled the middle name of a onetime Supreme Court justice. He was Justice John Marshall Harlan, not Justice John Marshal Harlan.

How we handle corrections

Sheryl Gay Stolberg is a Washington Correspondent covering health policy. In more than two decades at The Times, she has also covered the White House, Congress and national politics. Previously, at The Los Angeles Times, she shared in two Pulitzer Prizes won by that newspaper’s Metro staff. @SherylNYT

(Video) Covid-19 vaccine passports come into effect in France

Adam Liptak covers the Supreme Court and writes Sidebar, a column on legal developments. A graduate of Yale Law School, he practiced law for 14 years before joining The Times in 2002. @adamliptak Facebook

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Do you need to be vaccinated to enter the US? ›

As of 12:01 am EDT May 12, 2023, noncitizen nonimmigrant air passengers no longer need to show proof of being fully vaccinated with an accepted COVID-19 vaccine to board a flight to the United States. See more information.

Can you still get Covid even if you vaccinated? ›

COVID-19 Infection after Vaccination

People who are up to date on COVID-19 vaccines are much less likely to experience severe symptoms than people who are not up to date, if they get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. People who get infected after vaccination can spread COVID-19 to other people.

What does fully vaccinated mean? ›

The CDC uses the term “up to date” regarding vaccines and boosters when eligible. Individuals are considered “fully vaccinated” (1) two weeks after receiving the second dose in a two dose COVID-19 vaccine series or (2) two weeks after receiving a single dose COVID-19 vaccine.

What does it mean to be fully vaccinated CDC? ›

If you have received all recommended doses of a COVID-19 vaccine that has been authorized or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or is listed for emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO), then you are considered to be fully vaccinated.

Who should not take the COVID vaccine? ›

According to the CDC, anyone who has a severe allergy (e.g., anaphylaxis) to any of the mRNA vaccine ingredients should not receive this vaccine. The CDC says people with allergies to certain foods, insects, latex and other common allergens can safely receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Can you get Covid 3 times? ›

Since it's been estimated that over 80% of Americans have been infected with COVID-19 at least once, concern about reinfection is valid. Indeed, a person can get COVID-19 once, twice, three times or more. Does looking at the impact of reinfection matter, especially if you've been vaccinated? Absolutely.

When is the pandemic going to end? ›

The federal COVID-19 PHE declaration will end on May 11, 2023. Most tools, like vaccines, treatments, and testing, will remain available. CDC's ability to collect and share certain data will change. CDC is updating its guidance to align with data changes.

What are the disadvantages of the COVID-19 vaccine? ›

In the U.S., there has been an increase in reported cases of myocarditis and pericarditis after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination, particularly in males ages 12 to 29. Myocarditis is the inflammation of the heart muscle, while pericarditis is the inflammation of the lining outside the heart. These reports are rare.

How long do COVID antibodies last? ›

Share on Pinterest Research shows that the antibodies that develop from COVID-19 remain in the body for at least 8 months. Immunity can occur naturally after developing COVID-19, from getting the COVID-19 vaccination, or from a combination of both.

How long does the COVID vaccine last? ›

Protection against getting infected does appear to wane over time. Protection against death and severe disease also drops over time, but more slowly. You can increase your protection by getting a booster from 6 months after your primary course.

Do I need booster to be fully vaccinated? ›

You do not need to be immediately revaccinated or receive an additional booster. The COVID-19 vaccines generally remain very effective against severe illness and death. But over time, they do decrease in effectiveness against infection.

Do i need COVID vaccine to fly to Japan? ›

Effective as of midnight April 29, 2023 (Japan time), all travelers arriving in Japan will no longer need to present proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test certificate.

How is the definition of fully vaccinated CDC changed? ›

The CDC also changed its wording for the definition of “vaccination” from “the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease” in 2018 to “the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce protection from a specific disease.” The key differences here are, again, the absence ...

What diseases don t have a vaccine? ›

Vaccine Nation: 10 most important diseases without a licensed...
  • Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis)
  • Chikungunya.
  • Dengue.
  • Cytomegalovirus.
  • Hookworm infection.
  • Leishmaniasis.
  • Malaria.
Sep 3, 2013

Which vaccines are actually necessary? ›

Here's a look at the six important vaccines every adult needs.
  • Tdap or Td. Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough) are highly contagious and life-threatening, especially for infants under six weeks of age. ...
  • MMR. ...
  • Chickenpox. ...
  • Hepatitis A and B. ...
  • Flu. ...
  • Pneumococcal.

What shots do you need every 10 years? ›

The CDC recommends that adults get a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) or Td (tetanus, diphtheria) booster shot every 10 years. Ask a health care provider when you need your booster shot.

What percentage of Americans have not had COVID? ›

Serologic testing of US adults finds that nearly 42% have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies indicating previous infection, but about 44% of them said they never had COVID-19, according to a study published today in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Who has gotten COVID the most times? ›

Covid: The man who tested positive for Covid 43 times

Dave, 72, is a driving instructor and musician who's spent the last 10 months with an active coronavirus infection, visiting hospital seven times. His immune system was vulnerable to the virus after a leukaemia diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment.

Can you catch Omicron twice? ›

Is it possible to get Omicron twice? The Omicron variant spreads easier than other variants of coronavirus, and people can get it twice. Reinfection is possible even if a person has already had this virus or is fully vaccinated.

Is COVID-19 no longer a pandemic? ›

Yes, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did declare that COVID-19 is no longer “a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).” To use their definition, a PHEIC is: “An extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of ...

Should I still wear a mask? ›

You probably don't need to wear a mask, but you may continue to do so if it makes you feel more comfortable. Areas with medium transmission. If you have a higher chance of getting severe COVID-19, wear a mask in indoor public spaces.

Will COVID be gone on it's own? ›

(tl;dr) Probably not. Several people, including the US president, have suggested that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, will go away on its own in the warmer weather that will come in the Northern Hemisphere in coming months.

Which vaccines do you need for immigration? ›

What vaccines are required for U.S. immigration?
  • Mumps.
  • Measles.
  • Rubella.
  • Polio.
  • Tetanus and diphtheria.
  • Pertussis.
  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib)

Is COVID vaccine required for immigrant visa? ›

Although refugees and K visa applicants are not required to receive vaccines before traveling to the United States, they must meet the vaccination requirements when applying for adjustment of status or permanent resident status in the United States.

Do you have to be vaccinated to go on a cruise? ›

Although vaccines are not required, we encourage all guests 5 years of age and older to be up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines, when eligible, and carry proof of vaccination.

What do you need to get into US from Canada? ›

Entry and exit requirements
  • Passport. You must provide proof of your Canadian citizenship upon entry to the U.S. ...
  • Other travel documents. Different entry rules may apply when travelling with a temporary passport or an emergency travel document. ...
  • Visas. ...
  • Length of stay. ...
  • Biometrics. ...
  • Electronic devices. ...
  • Preclearance. ...
  • Criminal Record.

Are you permanently ineligible for US citizenship? ›

The US government will claim you permanently ineligible for US citizenship if you escaped from the US military during a war, avoided the draft, or asked to be freed from responsibility as being a noncitizen.

Can a communist become a US citizen? ›

Membership in the Communist Party or another type of totalitarian party may prevent a foreign national from receiving citizenship in the U.S. They would need to disclose their membership on Form N-400, which specifically asks whether an applicant has ever been associated with the Communist Party or another totalitarian ...

How many vaccines can you get at once? ›

There is no upper limit for the number of vaccines that can be administered during one visit. ACIP and AAP consistently recommend that all needed vaccines be administered during an office visit. Vaccination should not be deferred because multiple vaccines are needed.

Do green card holders need proof of vaccine to enter us? ›

Those applying for a green card will still need to show proof of full vaccination when attending the immigration medical exam.

Was the COVID vaccine FDA approved? ›

On April 18, 2023, the Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency use authorization (EUA) of Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine, Bivalent to simplify the vaccination schedule for most individuals. This action includes authorizing the current bivalent vaccine (Original and Omicron BA. 4/BA.

What happens if you don't have vaccination records for green card? ›

If you do not have a vaccination record, the panel physician will work with you to determine which vaccinations you may need to meet the requirement. Certain waivers of the vaccination requirement are available upon the recommendation of the panel physician.

Can you go on a cruise without a passport? ›

U.S. citizens on closed-loop cruises will be able to enter or depart the country with proof of citizenship, such as an Enhanced Driver's License (EDL), a government-issued birth certificate (issued by the Vital Records Department in the state where he or she was born) or passport, and if 16 or older, a government ...

Do you have to be vaccinated to go to Japan? ›

Effective as of midnight April 29, 2023 (Japan time), all travelers arriving in Japan will no longer need to present proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test certificate.

Do you have to be vaccinated to go to Europe? ›

Travellers should be allowed to enter the EU if they meet one of the following conditions: they have completed the full primary vaccination series of a COVID-19 vaccine approved by the EU or the World Health Organization (WHO) and fewer than 270 days have passed since the completion of that series.

Can a US citizen be denied entry back into the USA? ›

Citizens: You only have to answer questions establishing your identity and citizenship (in addition to customs-related questions). Refusal to answer other questions may cause delay, but officials may not deny you entry into the U.S. if you have established your identity and citizenship.

Where can a US citizen travel without a passport? ›

U.S. citizens do not need a passport to travel between the U.S. and these territories:
  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
  • Puerto Rico.
  • U.S. Virgin Islands.

Can I go to Canada without a passport? ›

Entry into Canada: Canadian law requires that all persons entering Canada carry proof of citizenship and identity. A valid U.S. passport, passport card, or NEXUS card satisfies these requirements for U.S. citizens. Children under 16 only need proof of U.S. citizenship.


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