Are 'vaccine passports' for real? Field is wide open on COVID-19 travel IDs

  • The International Air Transit Association plans to debut its Travel Pass, an app hosting verified test and vaccine information, in April, but it's not for the general public.

    The International Air Transit Association plans to debut its Travel Pass, an app hosting verified test and vaccine information, in April, but it's not for the general public. Courtesy of IATA

  • Passengers check in at O'Hare International Airport. A number of smartphone apps are emerging to provide health credentials for travelers.

      Passengers check in at O'Hare International Airport. A number of smartphone apps are emerging to provide health credentials for travelers. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • CDC vaccination record cards are the norm to prove you've been vaccinated, but myriad digital versions of health records are popping up.

    CDC vaccination record cards are the norm to prove you've been vaccinated, but myriad digital versions of health records are popping up. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/12/2021 7:25 AM

There's a lot of buzz about "vaccine passports" that offer digital documentation of a COVID-19 inoculation to ease travel during the pandemic, but what does that really mean?

For starters, there's no such thing as a vaccine passport, advises the American Civil Liberties Union's Ed Yohnka. "A passport is a government document that's legally binding in terms of giving you permission to travel," he said.

 

What is emerging are myriad apps providing proof that someone has tested negative for COVID-19 or been vaccinated, experts explained. The idea is that digital records aren't affected by wear and tear like paper Centers for Disease Control vaccination cards and are less prone to fraud.

One version expected to debut within weeks is a "Travel Pass" devised by the International Air Transport Association. The smartphone app can store travelers' health credentials, but it's not available to the general public.

"You will only be able to download it if you get an invitation from an airline," said Perry Flint, head of communications for the association, whose members include major carriers such as United and American airlines.

The IATA Travel Pass lets international passengers check in for their flight ahead of time and have health records verified, rather than the nightmare of a terminal filled with people waving paper vaccination certificates.

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"You cannot imagine the lines we would have. And, they won't be 6 feet apart," Flint said.

Chicago's hometown carrier, United Airlines, "will soon allow customers to upload and store their vaccination records in its travel ready center available on United.com," spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

Flint pointed out that governments -- not airlines -- make the rules on what's needed to visit a country during the COVID-19 era.

Currently just a handful of nations want proof of vaccination, although a plurality require international travelers to have negative COVID-19 test results to enter, Flint said.

All international travelers including Americans, whether they are vaccinated or not, must get a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight to the United States. For domestic travel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control ruled April 2 that vaccinated flyers do not need COVID-19 tests, but it recommends them for unvaccinated travelers.

Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, describes the norm at some international airports as "multiple lanes, much like a toll road. Unvaccinated travelers are in the cash lanes, having to show a negative test and/or quarantine on arrival. Meanwhile, vaccinated travelers are in the E-ZPass lane, zipping right through and bypassing any additional requirements."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"As more countries in Europe reopen, they've indicated they'll adopt this toll road approach rather than requiring vaccinations per se," Keyes said.

The idea of a government-controlled vaccination ID card has resulted in pushback over privacy issues.

"If the government demands it and if the government only makes it available in a form that could easily be used for gathering information about someone's location, that would be a concern," the ACLU's Yohnka said.

In March, Airlines for America asked the White House to help it create guidelines for digital COVID-19 health credentials to prevent confusion and fraud.

But the group that represents major U.S. airlines noted "we firmly believe that COVID-19 vaccines should not be a requirement for domestic or international travel." The International Air Transport Association also opposes mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for flyers.

Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said "there will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential."

New York, however, in March introduced the Excelsior Pass smartphone app developed with IBM that shows if a person was vaccinated or had a negative COVID-19 test result.

So far it appears the Illinois government is taking no action on such a product. Got an opinion on COVID-19 and air travel? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

You should know

Metra and Woodstock officials last week recognized the completion of a major rehab of the village's 1915 Metra train station. The $250,000 project completely overhauled the interior with a new HVAC system and rebuilt walkways outside.

Gridlock alert

Outbound Kennedy Expressway drivers get a new collector-distributor road between Harlem Avenue and I-190 on Thursday. The remodeled design separates ramps leading to Cumberland Avenue, I-294 south and I-190 into O'Hare from mainline traffic heading west. But the new road, near Canfield Avenue, is one mile before the existing version. That means drivers who need to access exit ramps should be on their toes and start merging sooner, IDOT advises.

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