Foss: Are vaccine passports a good idea?

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The other day I did something I haven’t done in I don’t know how long: I walked downtown and joined a friend for a drink at a local bar. 

We sat outside on the patio, basking in the beautiful spring weather and good company. 

My friend had recently received her COVID-19 vaccine, and the outing marked our first in-person get-together in many months. It was, as I later told my husband, glorious – the sort of fun, carefree thing I’m ready to do a whole lot more of. 

For over a year, we’ve been navigating a complex web of restrictions on daily life, and it’s created a pent-up demand for all manner of activity. People want to dine out, and travel and watch sports, among other things. 

On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled the nation’s first “vaccine passport” – a smartphone app, called the Excelsior Pass, that provides easy access to a person’s COVID-19 status, showing that they’ve either been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the virus. 

Nobody’s required to participate in the Excelsior Pass, but doing so could make life easier, enabling people to gain entrance to businesses, venues and public events more easily, travel more broadly and hold bigger events. 

The idea of a digital pass containing private health information might sound weird, even futuristic, but it’s something we’re going to be hearing a lot more about, as governments look for ways to reopen and keep people safe. 

The Excelsior Pass is so new it’s difficult to know how, exactly, it will be used. 

But vaccine passports raise a host of thorny ethical questions and privacy concerns, and I have some serious reservations about them. 

Coronavirus vaccines are new, and they’re not yet available to everyone who might want or need them. 

With the global vaccine rollout still in its infancy, we need to ask whether dividing the world – or even our own states and communities – between vaccinated and unvaccinated people is a good idea. 

It’s true that vaccines are sometimes required to travel abroad, or go certain places – my son must be up-to-date on his vaccines to attend daycare – but there’s little precedent for large-scale, society-wide restrictions based on one’s vaccine status. 

As Nicole Hassoun and Anders Herlitz, who study public health ethics, wrote in Scientific American, “Immunity passports promise a way to go back to a more normal social and economic life, but the benefits they generate will be dispersed unequally, and it is not obvious that they are ethical. 

“On the one hand, immunity passports offer an opportunity for employees to go back to work and families to reunite. On the other hand, they will not be available to everyone, and they will exacerbate existing inequalities.” 

Another concern is privacy. 

Will the digital databases used to store our vaccine information be secure, or vulnerable to hackers? Who, exactly, will have access to these electronic records? 

Finally, I wonder whether the benefits of vaccine passports are being oversold by businesses and industries eager for a return to normalcy and the economic rebirth that will come with it. 

One article I looked at claimed vaccine passports offer one of the “fastest routes” to controlling coronavirus, but I’m skeptical. From where I sit, the vaccines themselves offer the fastest route to controlling COVID-19, and the focus should be getting shots into arms as quickly as possible and encouraging people to take the vaccine. 

None of this means that I wouldn’t use the Excelsior Pass, if it meant being able to go to a concert I really wanted to go to, or take a vacation out-of-state, or watch a movie on the big screen again. 

But I’d like to see a lot more consideration of the downsides of vaccine passports, and a lot less hype.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss, Schenectady County

4 Comments

JEFFREY KOZLOWSKI

How is this different from segregation? It just seems like another opportunity to categorize and divide people. “You stay out there cause you’re not vaccinated,,, you nice people come inside cause you’ve got your Excelsior Pass”. It also screams of “show me your papers please”. GIANT. CAN. OF. WORMS.

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