It's been over a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And while average daily cases in the U.S. are still hovering at a high number – nearly 60,000 per day – there are signs that some individuals are ready to travel again, despite pleadings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay put.
The Transportation Security Administration has documented over 1 million airport screenings every day for the past 18 days. It's the longest streak since the pandemic was declared. The CDC currently recommends that fully vaccinated individuals refrain from nonessential travel, though agency officials plan to update that guidance.
A vaccine passport system has been suggested for activities like attending concerts or going into the workplace. But its biggest influence could come from encouraging tourists to resume trips, providing a massive boon to a travel industry that has suffered dramatic losses during the pandemic. However, experts say the idea faces several concerns that are difficult to address.
Vaccine passports are not a new idea. Frequent international travelers might be familiar with vaccine cards, which are typically a yellow paper showing a persons' vaccinations. Certain areas require proof of vaccination against illnesses like yellow fever or tuberculosis.
President Joe Biden in January issued an executive order directing agencies to assess the feasibility of linking coronavirus vaccinations to vaccine cards, also known as "international certificates of vaccination or prophylaxis," and producing a digital version.
Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to the White House coronavirus team, said on Monday that it's not the role of the government to create such a passport or hold that kind of data on its citizens. Still, the Biden administration is involved in the efforts and will provide guidance to the private sector on the topic.
Slavitt described the ideal coronavirus passport as free, equitable, secure, accessible in multiple languages and available both digitally and on paper.
Experts have questioned whether a coronavirus vaccine passport needs to be different from the vaccine card system already in place.
"I honestly don't think there's a need for it to be a separate thing," says Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. He adds that the vaccine is not a free pass to get out of wearing a mask.
Studies are underway to understand whether vaccinated people can become infected asymptomatically and transmit the virus to others, so health officials preach caution in decision-making until they are completed.
The scope of such a system is also unclear. It could be something used within the U.S. to allow vaccinated people to resume certain activities like sporting events, or some countries could choose to implement it on international travelers.
While proving vaccination could help pave the way for a return to normalcy across several industries, travel would likely benefit the most. Vaccine passports have been proposed as a way to make governments, citizens and travelers more comfortable with opening up to tourism.
The U.S. Travel Association and other groups have asked the Biden administration to set a May 1 deadline to come up with a plan to reopen the U.S. to international visitors.
"If nothing is done to lift international travel bans and bring back demand, the U.S. Travel Association estimates that a total of a 1.1 million American jobs will not be restored and $262 billion in export spending will be lost by the end of 2021," the groups wrote in a letter to the administration.
While the groups stated that they believe vaccinated individuals should be exempt from international testing requirements, they do not support "vaccine requirements as a prerequisite for travel."
Coronavirus vaccine passports could help provide a feeling of safety while traveling, but health officials say it is too soon to know if such a feeling is warranted.
"We're still in a place where we don't know how much that vaccination prevents you from transmitting the virus," Raymond says.
But that hasn't stopped some places from exploring the idea or something similar to it.
The European Union recently proposed a "Digital Green Certificate to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic." It would be digital proof that the person has been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the coronavirus.
The International Air Transport Association is developing a mobile application called "Travel Pass" that displays coronavirus test results or proof of inoculation with the aim of providing "governments with the confidence to reopen borders without imposing quarantines on incoming travelers."
And IBM is working on a "digital health pass" as a way to "to bring people back to a physical location, such as a workplace, school, stadium or airline flight."
It's already been established that more research into coronavirus vaccination and transmission is needed, but experts believe equity could be an additional concern with vaccine passports.
"It is hard to imagine how vaccine passports could be put into place in a way that would make travel safer around the world in an equitable manner," Mercedes Carnethon, vice chairwoman of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says in an email.
Should a coronavirus vaccine passport be put into place for international travel, it would clearly put countries that have less access to vaccines at a disadvantage.
WHO's stance is that "national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission." It added that "preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease."
There are also privacy concerns to consider, as people may not be willing to share their health data with companies.
"There's always going to be hesitancy, whether it's about getting the vaccine or giving information about their status," Raymond says.
And it's unclear how much interest U.S. citizens would have in such a system, given that people already seem to be willing to travel within the country regardless of their vaccination status. Young spring breakers have taken to Florida beaches, prompting officials to label the developments "warning signs" of a potential backslide in progress against the coronavirus.
In a country where the pandemic has demonstrated drastic political divides over coronavirus mitigation strategies, a vaccine passport system could be a hard sell.
"Our country has not shown a united front to date when it comes to [COVID-19] mitigation strategies, unlike countries in Europe, Asia and famously New Zealand who have gone through a series of rolling nationwide lockdowns as needed," Carnethon says. "It seems that requiring visitors to the U.S. to show vaccine passports would be challenging to receive bipartisan support to put into place."