Denby Fawcett: A Vaccination Passport Would Mean Freedom, Not Oppression

If you ask me, the issuance of COVID-19 vaccination passports cannot come soon enough.

I embrace the idea of the opportunity to travel again with a health “passport”  —  a government issued card or smartphone app offering proof of COVID-19 vaccination — instead of having to  scramble for another virus test with a Q-tip shoved up my nose, or worse, having to endure quarantine in some sleazy hotel.

This has been a long year. Everyone is looking for the chance to break out. I see a vaccine passport as a ticket to freedom.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, the architect of Hawaii’s Safe Travels program, said in a phone interview Monday that he sees the potential for a virtual vaccine passport or an inoculation card to be rolled out for arrivals to the islands as early as the summer.

That would be a godsend to travelers and local residents, weary and frustrated by having to scramble to find often expensive “trusted partners” to administer COVID-19 tests.

It would allow travelers to Hawaii with proof of vaccine to bypass the state’s pre-travel testing and quarantine requirement.

The state is also working with the Biden Administration to establish a national standard for vaccination passports.

Gov. David Ige’s office says, at Ige’s request, the White House will be briefing the National Association of Governors Tuesday on the latest information on President Biden’s effort to establish a national standard for proof of vaccination credentials.

Anti-vaxxers can flip into a tizzy at the mere mention of allowing vaccinated people holding passports to travel seamlessly to the neighbor islands, then, when feasible, across all the different states and eventually internationally.

A recent Civil Beat story on vaccination passports sparked a heated debate, with passport critics slamming the idea as unconstitutional, asserting that they should not be denied travel rights because they opt not to get vaccinations for a variety of reasons, including religious and health objections.

The salient fact to remember is such passports when they become available would be optional, not a mandate to force people to get vaccinated to travel.

For those who refuse to be vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated for health reasons, versions of the passport under consideration would allow people to show they have tested negative for the virus.

A vaccination passport would make travel easier by giving passport holders the ability to skip quarantine and pre-travel testing regulations just like the Global Entry program allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers to get through U.S. Immigration and Customs faster.

An inoculation card is not a new idea. For years I remember carrying a yellow international vaccine card to show I had received shots against diseases like yellow fever and cholera as required by certain countries in Africa and Asia.

COVID-19 Vaccination card.
A COVID-19 vaccination card could be a ticket to freedom to travel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The difference is now the card would be electronic instead of paper. It would be like an airline boarding pass and use a secure QR code that could be stored in a smartphone or printed out.

To be successful, such vaccine credentials would have to meet medical privacy concerns and be available to anyone who wants one, with a paper version available to people who do not have smartphones.

In come countries and states, vaccination passports are under development not just for travel but also for entrance into stores, gyms, restaurants and large sports and entertainment events.

New York launched digital passes Friday to allow holders to download proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to get into art, entertainment and sports events in places like Madison Square Garden or Times Union Center in Albany.

Israel’s vaccine pass was launched last month to allow inoculated people to go to hotels and gyms.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency — the lead agency for a program for Hawaii — says different options for vaccine passports are still under discussion with no starting date yet.

The main concern here is finding a way to create a passport that offers verifiable proof of vaccination.

“We want to make sure we maintain the safety efficacy of our current Safe Travels program,” HI-EMA spokesman Douglas Carroll wrote in a text message Thursday.

State Department of Health Director Dr. Libby Char agrees that verification must be assured.

“The challenge is to find a mechanism that would prove that someone has been vaccinated,” Char said in a briefing to state lawmakers Thursday.

Char told lawmakers, “We’re in conversations right now looking at various commercial entities that could help to do that for Hawaii, to create some sort of passport system where they can validate, in conjunction with some sort of registry, that a person has been vaccinated.”

Dose #1 of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in syringe during press event held at Queen's Medical Center. December 15, 2020
Documenting vaccinations is nothing new. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Private companies including CommonPass, VeriFLY and Clear are working to come up with passports.

“At some point a passport program will come. There is a lot of optimism,” Char said.

But there are other issues, lots of them.

New York Times columnist Max Fisher called the vaccination passport issue “Covid’s Next Political Flashpoint.”

The issue he raises is that health passports will create a divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated; the privileged with passports will enjoy multiple benefits while poor people and minority groups  — often vulnerable people who have suffered most during the pandemic — will be left out.

“Granting special rights for the vaccinated, while tightening restrictions on the unvaccinated, risks widening already-dangerous social gaps,” Fisher writes.

Another issue with passports allowing travelers to skip testing and quarantine is uncertainty about how long travelers’ immunity will last, and if the vaccinations will stand up to new and more contagious variants of COVID-19; also, if vaccinated people who develop an asymptomatic infection can pass it on to others while they are traveling.

However, there was welcome news Monday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a new clinical trial has found the Moderna and Pfizer vaccinations are highly effective at blocking symptomatic and asymptomatic infections of the virus, making the vaccinated unlikely to transmit it to other people.

Yet another issue is that with the many different companies and agencies rushing to come up with their own passport programs, it will be difficult and take time to come up with a single vaccine passport that will be accepted everywhere in the world.

Some in Hawaii also worry that without time to make tourism less invasive, the ease of traveling with a vaccination passport will speed a return to the overbooked, overcrowded tourism residents endured before the pandemic when the islands were flooded with more than 10 million tourists a year.

Still, the vaccination passport idea is one I continue to embrace for the hope it offers us to finally get up and go where we want and how it they will help speed a return to normal life for all of us.

For critics who worry that issuing vaccine passports is a taking of our rights, I say it is a granting of freedom.

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