CLEVELAND — As states like Ohio continue to open up eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine, businesses may require proof of being vaccinated. Vaccine passports are already being used overseas in the return to normal as a means of minimizing the risk of spreading the virus.
So could airlines, private companies, and event venues in the U.S. soon require proof of the COVID-19 vaccine for customers?
“I would think that could happen over the next five, four, six weeks, eight weeks,” bioethics expert Mark Aulisio said.
Aulisio, a professor and chair of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine’s Department of Bioethics, said it’s likely that it could soon be mandatory to be vaccinated to travel internationally, as well as go to sporting events and the movies.
"A secure thing like a vaccine passport would be a way to make that happen,” Aulisio said.
The government's role
Airline and business groups are lobbying the White House to take the lead in setting standards for health passes. They believe that would avoid a hodge-podge of regional credentials that could cause confusion among travelers and prevent any single health certificate from being widely accepted.
But the Biden administration says it is up to the private sector and nonprofits to figure out how Americans can demonstrate that they have been vaccinated or tested.
“It’s not the role of the government to hold that data and to do that,” Andy Slavitt, a White House virus-response adviser, said this week. “It needs to be private, the data should be secure, the access to it should be free, it should be available both digitally and in paper and in multiple languages.”
Other governments, like those in Israel and Denmark, are taking a more active role.
A Republican lawmaker in Ohio wants to prohibit “vaccine passports” in the state, saying that doing so will ensure residents will maintain their freedom during the pandemic’s final stages.
Mixed feelings on passports
Two travelers flying to Florida from Cleveland Hopkins Wednesday night expressed opposing views about the possibility of such a passport.
“I think this is an okay idea if it helps other people in the public to avoid getting sick,” Virneese Fisher said. “If they make it mandatory like masks are mandatory and we have to wear it, so if they did make it mandatory that we had to get a vaccine and travel, that's what we have to do. You know, you have to follow the rules.”
However, Logan Pagel isn’t convinced the passports would be effective.
“I think it's kind of crazy to expect people to go along with something as crazy as that,” Pagel said. “No one's asking me if I got a flu shot to go get a McDouble at McDonald’s, so I don't see any reason why it'd be any different with COVID.”
Art Nittskoff has been a travel agent for nearly four decades, but business came to a screeching halt this time last year.
“Places were closed. Planes weren't going. It was just a nightmare for months, just trying to get people re-booked and to get them refunds,” Nittskoff said.
Nittskoff said his cash flow is picking up and several of his customers are currently vacationing in Mexico and Las Vegas.
He said vaccine passports would add an extra layer of protection for travelers and ensure the travel industry continues on its upswing, but he acknowledged that not everyone agrees.
“They think, ‘Oh, if you have to have a passport to go into places that's too much big brother.’ They feel like they're going to be checked so that the government knows everywhere that they go,” Nittskoff said.
Aulisio said federal regulations regarding passports are unlikely.
“That's not what is being considered by the Biden administration and I think they've ruled that out,” Aulisio said. “They're being used in limited ways by airlines and other businesses to, in their eyes, better ensure the safety of their clients and their patrons.”
For now, Pagel is not on board with the idea.
“I think we should just keep going the way we're going now and let people make their own decisions,” Pagel said.
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'The devil is in the details'
A representative from the ACLU advocates for a wait-and-see approach.
“We don’t oppose in principle the idea of requiring proof of vaccination in certain contexts, but the devil is in the details, and any proposal for ‘vaccine passports’ must not be exclusively digital, must be decentralized and open source, and must not allow for tracking or the creation of new databases with personal medical information," said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. "Not everyone has access to a smartphone, especially people from some of our most vulnerable communities.
“There is also real concern that the creation of vaccine credentials could lead to overuse, or have a chilling effect on immigrant communities and communities of color who are already subject to over-policing and surveillance. There are legitimate circumstances in which people can be asked for proof of vaccination, but right now not everyone can get vaccinated. That’s precisely what herd immunity attempts to protect against: community spread to people whose medical conditions contraindicate a vaccine or who don’t have access. We don’t want a vaccine passport that leads to our most vulnerable people getting further shut out of full participation in our society.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.