Virus Outbreak

The new “Excelsior Pass” app, a digital pass that people in New York can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

Dear President Joe Biden and Gov. Charlie Baker,

We are writing today to urge you to work together to develop a robust framework for implementing vaccine verification systems, or “vaccine passes.”

We have to look ahead to the future. Very soon, most people in the United States will have been vaccinated, and we will start to return to a new normal. Vaccines will not completely eradicate COVID-19 for the time being, but vaccine passes will allow us to live with the virus without having to impose costly lockdowns. People will feel more comfortable getting on airplanes or going to sports arenas if they know others there have been vaccinated as well. By distributing vaccine passes, we can reopen our economy more fully without compromising public health.

Other countries have taken the lead on vaccine passes. Israel has created a Green Pass that allows vaccinated people to access indoor venues, and the European Union is pushing ahead with plans to distribute a Digital Green Certificate for travel across Europe. South Korea and other countries are pursuing similar policies. The basic concept of a vaccine pass is not entirely new: it has long been standard practice to have to display proof of certain vaccinations before entering countries.

Back in January, the White House issued an executive order to “assess the feasibility” of creating electronic certificates of COVID-19 vaccinations. However, the federal government has issued little guidance since then, despite appeals for additional clarity. In contrast to what other countries have done, the White House recently ruled out the idea of establishing a federal vaccine verification system and database, instead leaving implementation logistics up to states and private partnerships (such as the Vaccination Credential Initiative). And while the White House has indicated that it will help develop overarching standards to ensure that vaccine passes are safe and effective, those standards are reportedly weeks away from being finished.

We need to confront this issue now. We need standards now.

At the start of the pandemic, there was a clear lack of coordination and communication between the federal government and states. In the absence of a federal vaccine pass, state policymakers deserve federal guidance and support as they implement vaccine passes of their own. In that vein, we have to avoid creating a patchwork of different systems in different states. New York has raced ahead and worked with IBM to roll out a vaccine pass, which has already been tested at Madison Square Garden. Likewise, Hawaii is planning a system to allow vaccinated visitors to bypass quarantines. As Massachusetts sets out to create its own vaccine verification system, it should work closely with federal partners, other states and private enterprise.

With vaccine passes, the devil lies in the details. Verification systems pose significant implementation challenges, which make proactive planning and clear guidance all the more imperative. As Massachusetts and other states work with the federal government on vaccine passes, here are 10 key issues to address:

Compatibility

How can we ensure that various vaccine verification systems are interoperable? Already, there are more than a dozen vaccine passes in the market.

Scope

How can we ensure that vaccine passes are used in the best way possible? Will they only be used at airports and large indoor venues? What about restaurants and bars?

Effectiveness

How can we ensure that vaccine passes are effective? How will vaccine passes adapt to changing circumstances, such as new variants or waning immunity? How will vaccine verification systems determine which vaccines qualify as valid?

Data security

How can we ensure that vaccine verification systems are secure?

Data privacy

How can we ensure that personal data in vaccine verification systems remain private? We need regulatory oversight about who can access medical data and where this information will be kept. We need oversight to prevent data from being sold to third parties or used by law enforcement. We need oversight to prohibit data from being collected about which venues you visit. Individuals must retain control of their personal information.

Fraud

How can we ensure that vaccine passes cannot be counterfeited?

Efficiency

How can we ensure that vaccine passes can be scanned quickly?

Affordability

How can we ensure that vaccine passes are cost-friendly for venues to use?

Inequity

How can we ensure that vaccine passes do not exacerbate inequality? There are racial and ethnic disparities in vaccination rates, and the vaccine rollout has highlighted structural barriers in accessing technology. Any vaccine verification system must be accommodating and accessible for everyone.

Inclusivity

How can we ensure that vaccine verification systems account for people who might opt out of getting vaccinated for religious reasons or medical reasons (such as people allergic to the vaccine, pregnant women or young children)? Moreover, some conservatives have voiced strenuous opposition to government-mandated vaccine verification systems. How can we strengthen public trust and ensure that vaccine verification systems encourage, rather than discourage, vaccinations?

We need to start addressing these questions now. We hope that the Baker and Biden administrations will closely collaborate to solve these issues. As co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity, we look forward to helping implement a thoughtful vaccine verification system here in Massachusetts.

Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, a Democrat, represents the 15th Essex District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Sen. Barry R. Finegold, a Democrat, represents the 2nd Essex and Middlesex District in the Massachusetts Senate.