What is the Excelsior Pass, and could it be adopted across the U.S.?

what is excelsior pass
Photo via Marco Verch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

More than 1 million New York residents have now downloaded the state’s Excelsior Pass, introduced in March as the first and only government-issued vaccine passport to be issued in the United States. Currently, the passport is only accessible to people who have been vaccinated in the state—about 9.1 million New Yorkers.

The general purpose of the Excelsior Pass is to allow vaccinated individuals access to sporting events, arts venues, and musical performances by presenting digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results. It’s being compared to a mobile airline boarding pass but for proving that the user has received a vaccination or negative test.

Users can download the Excelsior Pass Wallet app for free from the Apple or Google Play stores, so you can store the pass digitally on a smartphone. The individual pass is essentially a QR code that allows businesses and venues to scan the pass and validate it to ensure individuals meet any COVID-19 vaccination or testing requirements for entry.

Participation in the program is voluntary, and residents can still carry their paper cards to prove vaccination status.

But with approximately just one out of nine New Yorkers opting in to the program, officials are hoping that the pass will catch on more widely to help jumpstart the statewide economy. That means more people and businesses need to get on board, so that vaccine passports become more universally accepted—particularly in the wake of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lifting the remaining COVID-19 restrictions from most businesses.

So far, the program has been most popular among businesses that cater to adults, such as Chelsea’s City Winery, which also uses the CLEAR Health Pass system to verify lab results and vaccination status.

Eric Piscini—the vice president of emerging business networks at IBM, which developed the Excelsior Pass—told the New York Times that New York is having discussions with other states so the pass could be used by out-of-state residents and by New Yorkers in other states.

“In the application space, when you reach a million people, that’s a pretty good threshold to pass. That is a really good indication that people find value in this,” said Piscini.

However, that may be easier said than done. In particular, some people claim that the passes violate privacy—despite assurances on the Excelsior Pass website that no personal information is collected or stored.

States such as Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, and Florida have already banned the use of vaccine passports, citing privacy concerns. Even New York has some lawmakers backing new legislation that would provide additional privacy protections for the passes.

Potential downsides to the Excelsior Pass and other vaccine passports

Despite being adopted by a growing number of venues, “the vast majority” of businesses are not requiring any proof of vaccination. In fact, some small businesses that have experimented with requiring proof of immunization are facing a small but vocal backlash online and on social media.

The passport system is also primarily trust-based, as civic technology experts say it can easily be gamed or faked if someone wants to go through the effort.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told the Times that it took him just 11 minutes to download someone else’s Excelsior Pass using information found on Google and social media. It doesn’t help that millions of people posted pictures of their vaccination cards online, including their full name, birthdate, date of vaccination, and which type of shot they received.

Exacerbating the situation is that the Excelsior Pass can be easily uploaded to a “limitless number of devices,” printed out, or copied. Though businesses are technically supposed to check a user’s ID to make sure it matches the pass, that extra step is often skipped.

“We need to realize that as much as we want a magic piece of software to be able to tell us whether the person next to us is vaccinated, these apps really can’t,” said Cahn. “At the end of the day, it’s largely built on trust.”

Meanwhile, some users have been finding it difficult to sign up in the first place. The website pulls information from the state and city immunization databases, so if any information is entered incorrectly, such as misspellings or wrong initials, the pass cannot be found in the system.

To streamline the user experience, IBM recently added a phone number field to the online form to make the vaccination status easier to find. Out of five total fields—including first and last name, date of birth, phone number, and ZIP code—only four now need to match to get approved for a pass.

Hurdles aside, it remains to be seen whether more states will adopt digital vaccine passports. Even in states that oppose such measures, the practice may eventually become commonplace to gain entry to large venues or even to travel to other countries

Sources: New York Times, NY.gov

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