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White House working with private companies to develop COVID passports

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The Biden administration is helping the private sector develop COVID-19 vaccine “passports” for Americans inoculated against the virus, the White House confirmed on Monday.

The government is working to set standards for such programs, which would enable Americans to prove that they have been vaccinated and may be needed to gain access to businesses or entertainment venues as the country reopens.

“The government is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport nor a place to hold the data of citizens. We view this as something that the private sector is doing, and we’ll do what’s important to us,” Andy Slavitt, the senior adviser to the White House Covid-19 Response Team, told reporters at Monday’s briefing.

“And we’re leading an interagency process right now to go through these details and that some important criteria be met with these credentials. No. 1 that there is equitable access. That means whether or not people have access to technology or whether they don’t,” he continued.

Slavitt also said the administration recognizes that millions of Americans have yet to be vaccinated and that people’s private information must be safeguarded.

It’s important, he said, that the passports be free, distributed equitably among the population and be available in multiple languages.

While other countries are developing their own centralized passports, Slavitt cautioned against the US government taking too large a role — noting some people are worried about the administration being “heavy handed” in monitoring vaccinations and developing mandates for the public.

“We think we can essentially put forward guidelines and guidance. And given the federal government’s source and role in society from everything from the [Transportation Security Administration] to the [Veterans Administration] to the Department of Health and Human Services … we have a major impact in what will get done. So we’re putting forward our principles very clearly,” Slavitt said. 

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that the administration is engaged in ensuring that the credentials meet essential standards of accessibility and affordability.

“There are a couple of key principles that we are working from. One, is that there will be no centralized universal federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential. Secondly, we want to encourage an open marketplace with a variety of private sector companies and nonprofit coalitions developing solutions. And, third, we want to drive the market toward meeting public interest goals,” she said.

But she said the work is being largely led by the private sector.

The effort to develop standard credentials gained steam when President Biden predicted the country will begin a return to normal this summer and as a growing list of companies — from cruise lines to sports teams — say they will require proof of vaccination before opening again, the Washington Post reported on Sunday. ​

Agencies inside the Department of Health and Human Services have been running point on the initiative with private businesses, and the White House took​ a larger role led by coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients to coordinate the work of a variety of government departments. ​

“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” he told reporters on March 12.  

Zients said more updates could be announced as early as this week.

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Showing proof “may be a critical driver for restoring baseline population health and promoting safe return to social, commercial, and leisure activities,” ​the newspaper reported, citing ​​slides prepared ​earlier this month ​by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology​.​

A growing list of companies reportedly will require proof of vaccination before opening again.
A growing list of companies reportedly will require proof of vaccination before opening again.
Alamy Stock Photo

But officials — including representatives from the departments of health, defense, homeland security and even NASA — cautioned about the “confusing array” of efforts to create the credentials.

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“A chaotic and ineffective vaccine credential approach could hamper our pandemic response by undercutting health safety measures, slowing economic recovery, and undermining public trust and confidence,” ​one of the slides says.

President Biden predicted the country will begin a return to normal this summer.
President Biden predicted the country will begin a return to normal this summer.
Alamy Stock Photo

​New York has already launched the “Excelsior Pass,” an app that will allow residents of the state to prove they’ve received the vaccination or tested negative for the coronavirus to gain entry to events and businesses.

According to the Washington Post report, the Biden administration has identified 17 passport initiatives that are underway. 

Among them is the “smart vaccine certificate” being developed by the World Health Organization that would use a QR code that could be saved on a cell phone or printed out. 

The Vaccination Credential Initiative is working on a project to standardize the tracking of vaccination records.

“The busboy, the janitor, the waiter that works at a restaurant, wants to be surrounded by employees that are going back to work safely — and wants to have the patrons ideally be safe as well,” Brian Anderson, a physician at Mitre, a nonprofit company that runs federally funded research centers and who is leading the effort, told the Washington Post. 

“Creating an environment for those vulnerable populations to get back to work safely — and to know that the people coming back to their business are ‘safe,’ and vaccinated — would be a great scenario,” he said. 

The Mayo Clinic, Microsoft and 225 other organizations are working with the Vaccination Credential Initiative. 

But along with the development of the vaccine passport come concerns about ensuring that people’s private data are protected against fraud, and ensuring low-income people aren’t ignored.  

“How do we make sure that whatever is available is accessible to everyone so no one is left behind or feeling like they can’t participate in the return of their day-to-day activities?” Micky Tripathi, who Biden appointed as the national coordinator for health IT, asked during a roundtable earlier this month.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is working on the WHO’s effort, said it hopes to play a role in determining which organizations will issue the passports and informing the American public about them, the report said. 

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