'Vaccine passports': Will they be available in the U.S. in time for summer?

After receiving both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, I kept my appointment card in a safe. As a senior instructor for the training of NATO special forces, I have to prove my vaccination status before I can travel to NATO headquarters in Belgium, if personal learning resumes, most likely this summer.

However, my vaccination card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not enough to prove that I am fully vaccinated, especially for international travel. The cards are too easy to forge.

With more than 335 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine given worldwide to date World health organizationThe race to develop a Covid-19 vaccination pass is on.

As I was planning my NATO trip, I soon learned that an official form was not yet available in the US – and may not be soon.

The vaccination card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. John Torres / NBC News

Vaccination records, which could determine what people can and cannot do, are fraught with ethical considerations. Vaccines are still not readily available around the world and people would be divided into “Haves” and “Have Nots”. Earlier this week, Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO Emergency Program Director, said using vaccine certification as a requirement for travel was “not advisable”.

Evidence of vaccination already exists for yellow fever, and I have used it for years to travel to Colombia, Ecuador, or anywhere in the world as needed.

Countries like Iceland, Poland, Portugal and Cyprus have already announced plans for vaccination certificates. The European Union expects to see a ‘digital green passport’ which may combine information on vaccinations, recovery from the disease and test results for people who may not be fully vaccinated, possibly later this week. And Qantas airline launched its first customer study with a CommonPass digital health app that allows users to upload their negative coronavirus test results or proof of vaccination for international flights.

The US is far from it.

The CDC is currently advising against non-essential travel. A CDC spokesman said the agency “has not yet issued guidelines on how to deal with vaccinated people while traveling, and there are no established international standards for vaccines or vaccination documentation.”

Travel is expected to be included in the CDC’s upcoming guidelines, but the spokesman declined to say if they will be issued in time for the summer.

The yellow fever vaccination card that I used to travel to countries like Colombia and Ecuador for years.Courtesy of Dr. John Torres

While some states offer proof of Covid-19 vaccine status, it is inconsistent and can be a cumbersome process.

Just a few examples from state health ministries:

  • In Colorado, where I was vaccinated, a notarized form must be emailed along with a copy of your driver’s license.
  • California, which had given at least 11 million doses as of Friday, has a system for checking vaccine status, but it is “for vendors, not the general public,” said Darrel Ng, chief communications advisor for California Covid-19 Task force.
  • The Florida Health Department responded by email, “People can get a copy of their vaccination records through the local health department or the county private provider.” Given the high rate of “vaccine tourism” Florida encountered earlier this year, it is unclear what anyone would do if they were vaccinated but not resident in Florida.
  • The New York State Department of Health did not respond to multiple inquiries.
The vaccination card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not enough to prove that I am fully vaccinated, especially for international travel. Courtesy of Dr. John Torres

There are companies in the US that develop vaccine certificates for smartphone apps. The idea is that when you fly into a country, you scan the app at border control. If your vaccination status or negative test result is confirmed, you can skip the country’s quarantine process. If you don’t have a passport, you may need to quarantine, most likely for 14 days at your own expense.

IBM is working on a “Digital Health Pass” that uses blockchain for security and authentication. The IBM system will contain vaccination status or test results for people who have not been vaccinated, said IBM Watson Health spokeswoman Carolyn Castel.

The U.S. government is scheduled to upload verified vaccine data to the digital health passport through the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC, or individual state health departments. Castel declined to say when it would be available.

Right now, the CDC vaccination cards are the best we have. If Covid-19 vaccinations are widespread, some kind of vaccine certificate or passport will likely be needed in the future, not just for travel abroad, but possibly even to attend sporting events, theaters, hotels, or take a trip on a cruise ship.

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