What is a ‘vaccine passport’ and will you need one in NC? Answers to your questions

Richard Stradling
·5 min read

As more and more people receive COVID-19 vaccines, attention has turned to whether businesses, schools, governments and others should be able to require people to prove they have been vaccinated.

The term used most often is a “vaccine passport,” some sort of document that shows a person has been inoculated against the coronavirus. Here is a primer on the idea, which has already proven to be controversial.

What is a “vaccine passport”?

There is no single vaccine passport. The phrase generally refers to any number of apps that people can keep on their mobile phones to display a digital record of their shots. The federal government also provides a paper “COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card” that people receive when they get their shots. Either could be kept on hand should anyone ask whether you have been vaccinated.

Can businesses, schools and governments require vaccination?

Yes, and they often do, though seldom for COVID-19 yet. Under North Carolina state law, all children must be vaccinated against a half dozen diseases and public school students must be vaccinated against about a dozen, including mumps, measles and polio. Some employers also require workers to receive certain vaccinations; many hospitals make the annual flu shots a condition of employment, for example.

Whether employers can require the COVID-19 vaccination is unsettled because all of the vaccines currently available are being distributed under “emergency use authorization” from the Food and Drug Administration, rather than full FDA approval.

Can businesses require customers to prove they’ve been vaccinated?

Businesses have lots of freedom to set the rules at their establishments (“No shirt, no shoes, no service”), though they can’t discriminate based on race, gender, nationality or religion. But requiring customers to be inoculated against a particular disease is something very few have tried. A bar in Denver reopened its indoor space on April 2 only to those who could show they had been vaccinated, a move that made news in part because it is so unusual.

Does North Carolina or any other state require a vaccine passport?

No. States have a record of who has received the COVID-19 vaccine, and some are beginning to create tools to let people prove that to anyone who asks.

New York, for example, has created something it calls the Excelsior Pass, a phone app to show proof of vaccination or negative coronavirus test results. Getting the pass is voluntary, and the state does not require anyone to use it. But some venues in the state, including Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center and The Shed in New York City, now require patrons to show they’ve either been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the coronavirus.

North Carolina is working on something similar to the Excelsior Pass, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. It, too, would be voluntary.

“We just want to be able to make sure that people can access their own information about that vaccine for whatever purpose they may need,” Cohen said at a press conference April 6. “We’re looking at a number of vendor partners we can work with in the next couple of weeks, again just to make things easy for folks to get their own information.”

Are some states banning vaccine passports?

In the last week, some Republican governors have moved to prevent businesses and their own governments from requiring proof of vaccination, which they see as a limit on personal freedom.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced an executive order barring state agencies from issuing vaccine passports and prohibiting businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued an order prohibiting state agencies and private businesses and organizations that receive government money from requiring someone to prove they’ve been inoculated.

“Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives,” Abbott said.

Will the federal government require a vaccine passport?

The Biden administration has said it has no plans to require people to show proof of vaccination. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about vaccine passports at a press conference Tuesday.

“The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” Psaki said. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

What about proof of vaccination for international travel?

A: This is where the idea of a vaccination “passport” originated. Airlines and the travel industry have begun or support efforts to create apps that would allow governments to ensure arriving passengers are not at risk of spreading coronavirus. The International Air Transport Association has developed an app called Travel Pass that, among other things, functions as a vaccine passport.

The European Commission is working to roll out a “Digital Green Certificate” this summer that would allow citizens of 27 European Union countries to move within the EU by showing they’ve either recovered from COVID-19, been vaccinated or recently had a negative test.

But the World Health Organization reiterated its position this week that requiring vaccine passports for travel may not be a fair or effective way of preventing transmission of coronavirus.

Speaking in March, Dr. Mike Ryan, who heads the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said there are “real practical and ethical considerations” for countries to weigh before deciding what people can and can’t do based on their vaccination status, “when being vaccinated itself is not something that everyone has equal access to.”

“There are also people who for whatever reason cannot be vaccinated or do not wish to be vaccinated,” Ryan continued. “So this is a very important societal discussion, and I think we need to be very careful.”