May 13, 2021

Could a vaccination passport program be coming to Illinois?

Implementing any vaccination passport program comes with an array of privacy and logistical concerns, civil rights advocates and security experts have argued

Officials at the Illinois Department of Public Health said the agency is working on a program that would allow residents who are vaccinated against COVID-19 to show an electronic certification from the state.

“Vaccinated individuals may want to be able to prove they have been vaccinated, especially if they misplace their [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] vaccination card,” IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said. “IDPH is working to provide this service to individuals.”

Earlier this week, Chicago Public Health Director Dr. Alison Arwady floated the idea of creating a “vaccination passport” to attend events in the city as an incentive for younger residents to get immunized at a time when demand for the vaccination is waning.

“My goal at this point is to say, ‘You want to be part of the fun? Get vaccinated,’” Arwady told reporters Tuesday.

However, implementing any vaccination passport program comes with an array of privacy and logistical concerns, civil rights advocates and security experts have argued.

“The concern there is [phone] apps often function in a way that collects information and location data about people, and we’ve always said no passport should be all digital,” said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There may be some benefit of a passport, but not to have it synced up to a device that tells everyone in the world where we are.”

The idea of privatizing the endeavor would only add additional security concerns, as well as the potential for fraud and confusion, he said.

Currently, there’s no standardized documentation Americans receive when they are vaccinated. Some get a card, others have received sheets of paper and still others simply have it documented in their medical records that can be accessed online.

The White House has expressed opposition to any nationwide database or requiring a vaccination credential.

In New York, state officials recently unveiled an app on smartphones that allows residents to prove their vaccination status rather than carry around a paper copy.

Meanwhile, officials at local health departments in Illinois are looking at the IDPH to lead any such vaccination passport program.

“Lake County is not pursuing having our own passport system for COVID-19 vaccinations,” Lake County Health Department spokeswoman Hannah Goering said. “We are focusing our efforts on education at the grassroots community level to help address the causes of vaccine hesitancy.”

At the Cook County Department of Public Health, which oversees health-related programs and outreach in suburban parts of the county, officials said such passports are being considered, but also they “would support a statewide vaccination passport program,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, the agency’s co-lead and senior public health medical officer.

Illinois is averaging 18% fewer vaccine inoculations a day this week than providers were administering just a week ago, which leaves public health experts concerned that interest in getting vaccinated is waning. The idea of creating incentives for vaccinations is not new, public health officials said. School districts already require a litany of vaccinations in order for students to enroll at the school. Many jobs have vaccination requirements as well.

Yohnka said requiring proof of vaccination for entry to an event or venue is not burdensome or illegal.

“These are private events that one doesn’t have the right to attend,” he said. “If you want to say everyone needs to meet these standards, that would work as a requirement and an inducement to get vaccinated.”