I Got a Vaccine Passport

The Biden administration is shying away from vaccine passports. That’s a mistake — it will leave us in the same state vs. state mess we are in with gun laws. And let’s not pretend that passports will destroy our privacy; it doesn’t exist.

Donald G. McNeil Jr.
6 min readApr 15, 2021

I now have one vaccine passport — and I’m trying for more.

Because I got my shots at a New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation site, I now have a New York State Excelsior Pass. It is stored as a QR code in my iPhone wallet.

Right now, it gets me only into Madison Square Garden and a few other venues. But soon, I hope, it will help me get onto airplanes and into movies and restaurants without having to take a Covid test, quarantine or even surrender all my contact details to the restaurant.

I tried to get a CommonPass, but the Commons Project in Switzerland is offering it by invitation only.

I also tried to sign up for the IATA Travel Pass, but it’s not in the App Store yet and I’m not currently booked on Air Serbia. (OK, not just Air Serbia — some bigger carriers like Virgin Atlantic and Emirates are testing it.)

There are at least 17 different “vaccine passports” in the works, according to an internal Biden administration presentation obtained by the Washington Post.

They include one started by a Federal agency — the Veterans Health Administration, whose hospitals serve 9 million patients.

But now the administration says it will “not support a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.”

“As these tools are being considered by the private and non-private sectors, our interest is very simple from the federal government,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “Which is that Americans’ privacy and rights should be protected, so that these systems are not used against people unfairly.”

It’s hard to tell whether the administration is pandering to the paranoid Q-Anon fans who think this will lead to the government seizing our guns and injecting us with microchips or to the paranoid left convinced that it will lead to mass deportations, voting restrictions and alien abductions.

But paranoia should not be served. Ensuring fairness instead of an unholy mess is exactly why the federal government should step in. Right now we have a situation in which New York is issuing passports while Texas and Florida are forbidding them. By leaving the field to the states and private companies, the Biden administration is letting us blunder into a worse quagmire than we now have with gun laws, in which some states encourage you to carry a pistol on your hip while others can arrest you for having one in your trunk.

And leaving it to the tech companies means our data will inevitably be sold.

This is just the kind of situation the federal government can impose equity, transparency and privacy on. As the regulator of interstate commerce, home of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and doler-out of federal dollars, it is in the perfect position to set standards.

We’re off to a slow start again. The government has been discussing “immune certificates” since last April — a full year ago. The Trump administration was too deep in denial and infighting to make any progress. But the Biden administration should have laid plans long ago.

And having a forgery-proof way to show you’ve been vaccinated (and to show only that, not your whole medical history ) is almost undeniably a public good.

We want to end this pandemic. We need an end to the dying — we’ve become blasé about almost 1,000 dead every day. No one wants more lockdowns. Everyone is sick of masks. So the only way we’re going to finish it is through vaccination.

And we do need to know who’s vaccinated — or so packed with antibodies from surviving a natural infection that they pose no danger to others.

As the masks come off — and they will, in spite of all the tsk-tsking to the contrary — we very much want to avoid the situation we have seen repeated too many times: one superspreader entering an office or a church or a factory floor or a restaurant or a theater and infecting dozens of others.

In every epidemic, a certain percentage of vulnerables is inevitable: Some people won’t be vaccinated because of allergies or other medical problems. Some unlucky vaccinees won’t get a good “take” and will be under-protected without knowing it. And even the stubborn refuseniks need to be protected from each other.

Vaccination is emphatically not a violation of anyone’s rights. Nothing in the Constitution enshrines my right to give you a fatal disease. My right to privacy does not give me permission to punch you in the back of the head and walk off whistling with no one the wiser. If I did, I’d be arrested.

The laws are clear: we already require vaccinations for schoolchildren, for the military, for hospital workers and in other venues.

And the privacy issue is a red herring. Unless you’re the Unabomber in a Montana cabin or a mob boss with someone to carry your gun and your phone, a vaccine passport is not going to change your life even as much as a Venmo account or a gas station credit card does. No one is untrackable.

I have a Social Security number, a Medicare number, a passport number, a drivers license number, a fishing license number, an employee ID number, three credit card numbers, two dozen airline and hotel loyalty program numbers, even a Brooklyn Botanic Garden membership number.

Several have my picture, which means I can be spotted almost anywhere by facial recognition software. My Global Entry card has my fingerprints — but so does the MacBook Air I’m writing this on. Virtually all of these card issuers have my cellphone number because I sometimes want text updates. Since you usually can’t get a new form of ID without producing an old one, most of this data is linked.

If an ATF agent really wanted to frisk me for a gun, he could probably find me with just my botanic garden card: watching my phone ping off towers would tell him if I was lollygagging among the peonies or hiding out in Montana.

Democracies control bad police behavior by requiring search warrants, not by pretending that abuses won’t happen as long as we don’t create vaccine passports.

And we definitely need something more secure than those CDC flash cards, for which forgeries are already on sale.

There is a history of such forgeries spreading disease.

In 2005, the Saudis realized they were facing a new threat. Their country had been polio-free for 10 years, but vaccinations in northern Nigeria had been stopped — by state governors — because of a false rumor that the vaccine contained estrogen and was a Western plot to suppress the Muslim birth rate.

Pilgrims from Nigeria headed for Mecca were seeding new polio outbreaks as they crossed the continent by bus and then took ferries from Port Sudan to Jiddah. Eventually, scattered polio cases turned up in illegal encampments in the hills outside Mecca itself. Then weeks after the hajj ended, the Nigerian strain started spreading outward — first to next-door Yemen, then even to distant Indonesia.

To stop the hajj itself from becoming an annual superspreader event, the Saudis began requiring every pilgrim from any country known to harbor polio to arrive with vaccination certificate.

But they soon discovered that unscrupulous travel companies were selling fake certificates as part of their hajj packages.

So in 2009, the Saudis cracked down. They began requiring every arriving pilgrim to swallow a dose of the vaccine under the eyes of a government official as soon as they got off the plane.

As a nation, we probably don’t want to reach the point of forced vaccination. It’s been done; it was done in Philadelphia as recently as 1991, during a measles outbreak that killed nine children. But Americans don’t like being forced and will likely resist.

The best way to avoid that is to offer them very strong incentives to vaccinate — the right to fly or to board buses or trains, the right to go to movies or sporting events, the right to go to school, and so on.

Heading off conflict, and making sure those rights are parceled out in a rational way is the very reason the Biden administration should provide leadership — instead of washing its hands of the problem, as it’s doing now.



Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead Covid reporter. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT team Pulitzer donaldgmcneiljr1954@gmail.com