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What to Know About Digital Health Certificates

A year and half into the pandemic, vaccines now abound and more international borders are opening for visitors. With the percentage of Americans becoming fully vaccinated continuing to grow, travel industry pros and travelers alike are increasingly abuzz with anticipation. However, one topic of conversation continues to be highly debated: vaccine passports.

A vaccine passport—or digital health certificate of vaccination against COVID-19—offers proof via smartphone QR code of a person's vaccination status, in addition to also being able to show negative COVID-19 test results. Though many private companies are working to develop their own digital platforms—with venues like Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center testing one such platform called Excelsior Pass out for sporting events starting back in March—a singular standardized system and/or unified criteria has yet to emerge.

It's important to note the use of health certificates in general isn't new. In the past, U.S. border officials often required travelers entering the country in the late 19th century to offer proof of vaccination against smallpox. Many colleges have also long required students to prove inoculation against infectious diseases like measles, mumps and rubella.

Today, more modern challenges present themselves. Only having paper copies of vaccination cards makes it relatively easy for counterfeit certificates to emerge. Throw in the digital age and the fact that society hasn't dealt with a pandemic in over 100 years, and things get a little more complicated.

According to the Biden Administration, there are no plans for a federal mandate or vaccination system, leaving businesses like cruise lines and venues to enforce these rules on an individual level. Many say these digital health certificates will help businesses get back on their feet faster, though some critics have expressed equity and privacy concerns, with some states like Florida and Texas (at the time of this article) having banned businesses from requiring them.

Interestingly enough, opinions on vaccine passports from travel industry leaders have varied.

"We do not believe vaccine passports should be mandatory," said Peter Pantuso, President & CEO, American Bus Association. "By following cleaning protocols, people can travel safely now and should be able to as well into the future, making passports unnecessary."

Others see it a bit differently.

"There are vaccine passports, issued by government entities, and then there are vaccine policies that private companies use to keep their guests healthy and to generate more business," said Catherine Prather, President, National Tour Association. "As early as March, some of NTA's U.S.-based members—including tour operators, cruise companies, attractions, and experiences—began requiring guests to either be vaccinated or test negatively in order to participate."

After a year or more with no revenue, Prather said companies can't wait for the world to reach herd immunity, especially with an uneven global vaccine rollout.

"The news about the EU welcoming vaccinated Americans sometime this summer is promising, and we'll wait to see how this will be implemented," Prather stated shortly after the announcement was made. "For our members around the world, vaccine passports and policies don't represent political statements; they mean revenue can start rolling in again. What likely concerns them most about vaccine passports is that, rather than a patchwork of confusion, the solution will overcome differences in language, digital platforms, policies and restrictions."

One thing remains clear as the situation continues to develop: Travelers are indeed bursting with excitement and are ready to remove the barriers preventing them from hitting the road, taking to the skies and setting sail once more. Time will tell if being able to prove your vaccination status is the key to opening that once locked door.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for Groups Today.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Groups Today.


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