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In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor’s Press Office on Saturday March 27, 2021, is the new “Excelsior Pass” app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.  NY Governor’s Press Office via AP, File

Vaccine passports being developed to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine have become the latest flash point in America’s perpetual political wars, with Republicans portraying them as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal freedom and private health choices.

What is a vaccine passport?

A vaccine passport is a certificate which verifies that someone has been vaccinated against COVID-19. However, unlike a passport used to travel to different countries, a vaccine passport would likely be digital. People may carry physical or digital QR codes which can be scanned to access medical information and verify someone’s vaccination status.

Vaccine passports would likely be used to gain entry to sporting events, concerts, and other large, public venues or to travel on airplanes and cruise ships. 

Where does the information come from?

There is no federal vaccination database in the United States. Instead, each state — except New Hampshire — and some large cities, including New York, have their own immunization registries. QR codes would link to the information in one of these registries in order to access vaccination records.  

Are vaccine passports legal?

The short answer is, yes. Vaccine passports are legal and can be required by state or private entities. New York was the first state in the U.S. to launch a vaccine passport in March, officially named the Excelsior Pass. New Yorkers have already used the pass to enter Yankee Stadium and other large, public venues. 

However, regulations vary state to state. Some states have taken action to prevent the implementation of vaccine passports. In the first week of April, both Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed executive orders effectively banning the use of vaccine passports in their states. In other states, legislatures have proposed bills restricting or banning the use of vaccine passports.

Who wants vaccine passports?

The push for vaccine passports is primarily driven by economic interests. Some argue that requiring vaccine passports for concerts, sporting events, or any other large gatherings could mean that COVID-19 protocols can be reduced without risking public health. International and domestic airlines might also benefit from people wary of traveling during the pandemic. Vaccine passports would allow airlines to verify that all passengers are vaccinated. 

In short, vaccine passports are viewed as one method for resuming some normal activities before herd immunity is reached and pandemic protocols can be rescinded. 

Why are people against vaccine passports?

Vaccine passports have proven to be politically divisive. Critics of vaccine passports often cite privacy as their main concern and believe that health records should be kept private. The idea of digital vaccine passports is relatively new, and there are no set standards for preserving user privacy. Others argue that vaccine passports would infringe on personal freedoms. Many are resistant to giving vaccinated people special privileges and worry that people who choose not to get vaccinated may face discrimination. 

Will vaccine passports be required in the U.S.?

At a recent briefing, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the Biden Administration would not mandate vaccine passports.

“We expect a vaccine passport, or whatever you want to call it, will be driven by the private sector,” Psaki said. “There will be no centralized, universal federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

More than likely, any governmental mandates will come from the state level. 

Are vaccine passports coming to Maine?

It is possible, but the state has yet to commit to the idea. According to the Portland Press Herald, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and health commissioner Jeanne Lambrew have discussed implementing vaccine passports in Maine, but had no plans to do so as of April 4. Instead, Shah said vaccinating Mainers should take priority.  

“That approach … is not without concern,” Shah said. “There are significant concerns about data privacy, as well as significant concerns about equity. If the passport presupposes that you have to be vaccinated, have we really done a good job getting those folks vaccinated in the first place? I think that’s why right now our focus is on getting folks who are eligible in the door for vaccinations.”

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