America needs a vaccine passport now

A provisional vaccine database would prevent confusion this summer — and maybe a few scams

It's time for a vaccine passport in the United States. But not for the reason you're thinking.

It's not because close to 20 percent of Americans have had their shots. And it's not because U.S. and international airline trade organizations, labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pushing the Biden administration to develop credentials that would allow travelers to prove they're inoculated. 

It's also not because Israel has its "green passport" for people who have received their COVID-19 shots. Or because Greece, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal are developing vaccine passports. Or even because authorities are reportedly developing a passport that would cover all 28 EU countries.

This is why we need a vaccine passport

No, we need a temporary vaccine passport to eliminate widespread confusion and stamp out the vaccine ID scams before they sow chaos on the upcoming summer travel season.

Vaccine passports would help people like Kathy Lopez, a retired city administrator from Prescott, Ariz. She's had both of her shots but couldn't prove it. So when her clinic handed her a CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card, she had an idea. 

"I laminated it," she says. 

Then she attached pictures of her getting the shot and a printout of a text message requesting her to complete a survey of her vaccination experience. 

"There will be a lot of fake documents circulating this summer," she says. "I don't want mine questioned."

But they probably will be. 

That's because the COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card is easier to forge than your parent's signature on a report card. Laminating the card won't help. But coming up with a secure way to prove you've received your shots will give Lopez and the people around her peace of mind.

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Are vaccine IDs a scam?

We also need a vaccine passport for people like Cynthia Stoltz, a store manager from Andover, Mass. She contacted me recently because, like Lopez, she was trying to prove her vaccine status. She saw a company called "Real Vaccination ID" that boldly promises it's the "Real Deal."

"Our son and daughter-in-law live in Switzerland, and obviously, since we have not seen them in a very long time, we are hoping to meet them," she told me. "So the idea of this card did appeal to me. But something about it sounds like maybe a scam."

She's right.

I contacted Castle Branch, the company that created the Real Vaccination ID, with a few questions. How are customers proving they've been vaccinated, particularly when the CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card isn't secure? Who recognizes the IDs? How does the Real Vaccination ID compare to a secure system like Israel's green passport? 

The company didn't respond.

Speaking of scams: There's a cottage industry for fraudulent vaccine IDs in the United States. Researchers from DomainTools, a security application, found blank vaccination record cards for sale online for $20 each

"Though selling a printed card is not necessarily illegal, the pricing, logo, and cardstock of these vaccination records demonstrate a level of intent to pass as legitimate cards from the CDC," DomainTools senior security researcher Chad Anderson noted.

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A provisional vaccine database would fix this problem

The fix is simple: We need a provisional national database of Americans who have been vaccinated and a secure way to access the information. Like other countries, we could quickly create a centralized vaccine database to issue credentials electronically. There are a number of potential technologies ranging from software-as-service, like Ping Identity’s Project COVID Freedom, to blockchain solutions such as VXPASS. You could delete the database once the pandemic ends, making the privacy advocates happy.

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There's popular support for such a system. More than half of Americans (54 percent) said they would be happy to carry digital health information if it allowed them to travel, according to a recent survey by Skyscanner in conjunction with OnePoll. And two-thirds of respondents to a J.D. Power & Associates survey said they believed vaccine passports are a good idea.

The Centers for Disease Control has already suggested that it may soon ease its travel recommendations, particularly for vaccinated Americans. For now, the government is still urging people to avoid travel, regardless of their status. But there are other activities, like concerts and meetings, where you may be able to participate if you can prove you've had your shots. 

A temporary vaccine passport would fix that.

💬 It's your turn! Do you think we need a vaccine passport? Why -- or why not? Do the privacy concerns outweigh the benefits? Or do you believe the vaccine is bogus? As always, please be nice to each other. Thank you.

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