An executive order means residents of Alabama may not be able to find out
Alabama's governor Kay Ivey has recently signed an executive order banning businesses and public institutions from requiring vaccine passports to allow citizens access to services and events. The move is likely a means of preserving supposed privacy and freedoms for those who are suspicious of the motives of such passports. But it raises the question of whether these freedoms are more important than the freedom for people to be able to return to normality, safe in the knowledge that they won't contract Covid-19.
After living under restrictions and stay-at-home orders for much of the last 12 months, many Americans are looking forward to getting back to normal. The return of legitimate freedoms without fear of illness or increasing the odds of a further wave of Covid-19 seems to rest on a couple of things - getting the vaccine rolled-out and adopting precautionary measures to beat the virus into submission without causing further death and widespread illness.
The use of masks and regular hand-washing are two such measures. A further tool that many nations and various states are exploring are vaccine passports as a means of tracking those who've received the protection of their full vaccine dose and who present less of a risk of transmission of the virus to others.
It's surprising then, that while New York has pressed on with the rollout of its Excelsior pass (with over 1 million downloads since the voluntary program began) states like Alabama and Florida have gone as far as to ban the implementation of Covid Passports by Executive Order.
Is this wise? What is the cost to residents of these states who won't have an easy means of proving their immunity to the virus? Does it deny them the freedom to actually use such a passport if they want to?
Vaccines alone won't beat the virus
The US rollout of the Covid vaccination is going well by most measures - 291 million doses have been administered so far. But progress is now slowing and 1 in 4 Americans saying they don't intend to get vaccinated which is a potential barrier to completing the rollout.
There still appears to be a way to go to achieve herd-immunity. Data comparing progress the world over suggests that the USA is currently running in third place, behind Israel and the United Kingdom - with just under 45% of the population having received at least one dose. Upwards of 85% of the population needs to be immune before herd immunity is effective. In California for example, estimates suggest that around 63% of the 34 million currently eligible to receive their shot have taken it up.
As different states (both Democrat and Republican-ruled) come up with innovative ways to encourage their residents to get vaccinated, including lotteries (in Ohio, California and Maryland) and free beer or pot (in New Jersey and Michigan respectively) there's a further problem to be overcome:
How should we go about preventing the spread of the virus to those who haven't been vaccinated or those who are most vulnerable to it? One answer seems to be vaccine passports.
The importance of track and trace
Just as many the world-over have become used to smartphone apps that track and trace their interactions with others who later develop the virus, apps seem to present a solution to maximizing the benefit of the vaccine via passports.
The theory goes that those who can prove they've been vaccinated present less of a risk for contracting and spreading the virus and are less of a risk to safe travel, particularly on flights. Indeed, Hawaii's governor David Ige was among the first to introduce Covid passports as a means of allowing inter-island travel in the state.
It's not just about using them to allow safe travel between states and even between nations. There's a further benefit in being able to prove that those admitted to theaters, concert venues and other large indoor gatherings where the virus might otherwise spread more easily. If a large majority of those admitted are protected by the vaccine then that too might make the organizers and attendees feel slightly easier about taking part in such events.
Do vaccine passports violate freedoms?
There are of course a number of concerns about the ethics of Covid passports and whether they erode the freedoms of those who choose to use them and whether they discriminate against those who don't.
Articles in renowned medical and scientific journals all consider these concerns alongside the benefits. In his comments regarding the executive order against the use of vaccine passports in Florida, Ron DeSantis specifically called out concerns over an overreach of authority by the federal government.
The Excelsior Pass being rolled out in New York has tackled this issue by being developed so that it contains no biometric data for privacy reasons. Holders of the passport have to produce their personal ID to use it for accessing travel and restricted events.
Whether citizens choose to believe that vaccine passports erode their freedoms or not comes down to individual choice. Those who are resistant to signing up for them are likely the same people who are against being vaccinated too.
What about the freedom to be safe?
The New York Excelsior passport is part of a voluntary scheme for now - in part this is enabled as the state hasn't outlawed the use of such passports. As time passes, the effects of the scheme will emerge and many may find that they like being able to travel and attend events where they know the risk of transmission and spread of the virus is lowered by the use of the passports and being around those who are vaccinated.
In states like Florida and Alabama there may be less individual freedom to explore ways of getting safely back to normal - is that not also an erosion of freedom and choice? Time will tell how much the citizens of Alabama object to this.