EDITOR’S NOTE: We realize that everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to travel during the pandemic. To keep up with the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click HERE. Stay safe!
As the buzz and excitement surrounding events and travel begin to swell, so does the attention to safety and the conversation surrounding requirements for entry to different venues and destinations. And while the idea of vaccination passports has become politicized in the past few weeks, we are not weighing in on either side. Instead, we are addressing the current questions being asked and looking at the history behind proof of vaccinations. Plus, we talk to a testing expert about the best way to get tested before travel. Here’s what you need to know!
Your Vaccine Passports & Pre-Travel Testing Guide
Where did this concept of vaccine documentation start?
Asking or requiring people to show proof of vaccination is not a new concept. In 1933, the International Sanitary Convention for Aerial Navigation established the first International Certificate of Inoculation and Vaccination. It was later adopted by the World Health Organization and called the “yellow card,” mainly because many countries required vaccination against yellow fever. Still today, travelers and students use paper vaccination documents to show vaccination against numerous contagious diseases. When you travel to Africa or begin college, for example, you’re required to show proof of many vaccines.
In the U.S., however, we have never required vaccine documentation outside of schools and hospitals. There will be no nationwide vaccine requirement for COVID-19, but some institutions, events, and businesses are starting to require proof of vaccination.
What does this new iteration of a “vaccine passport” look like?
First, carrying around your CDC-issued vaccination record is still a way to prove that you are vaccinated, though forgery and counterfeits are on the rise. The pandemic has impelled many tech companies and nonprofits to get to work building verifiable and secure digital versions of the “yellow card” of the past. The national government is turning this endeavor over entirely to the private sector, so expect to see a slew of different apps — typically by state — revealed in the coming months. Retailers like Walmart are also offering digital proof of vaccination to anyone who gets their vaccine there. These digital vaccine records are still in the beginning stages, and there are still many questions to be considered.
How do these apps work?
The systems that currently exist are completely voluntary to use, and most of them are free. After you enter some information — typically name, date of birth, and the test or vaccine information for verification — something like a scannable QR code or a green checkmark will appear on your smartphone’s screen, which you can show to the inquiring business or organization. Most of these apps will be contactless, much like mobile boarding passes, and have different options, from QR codes to printouts, for showing proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or recently testing negative for the virus.
What are some of the unknowns?
Many places like doctors’ offices, spas, and tours already send out pre-arrival questionnaires that screen for symptoms of COVID-19. Some venues check temperatures or even administer a rapid coronavirus test before entry. Proof of vaccination request would be another screening tool. Protocols will vary from business to business, and the ones requiring vaccination proof are getting pushback about the ethics of mandating vaccination as a barrier to entry. Privacy is a huge concern, and app developers are working hard to keep personal information safe. Other issues these developers are considering are forgery and the compatibility of the apps.
When will this come into play and how?
Because vaccines are still unavailable to all of the population, we will not know how these passports will affect day-to-day life until many months from now. New York has rolled out the first certification, IBM’s Excelsior Pass, the “digital ecosystem that enables individuals to store digital proof of test results and/or vaccine status and businesses and venues to verify these items without accessing personal health data.” (source) The app currently has three different types of passes: COVID-19 Vaccination Pass, COVID-19 PCR Test Pass, and COVID-19 Antigen Test Pass. Each is valid for a certain length of time. You can print out your pass, too, if you do not use a smartphone. And many places will require a valid ID that matches the app credentials.
What’s the difference between a PCR and an Antigen test?
As a refresher, the PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) test is considered the gold standard in testing because it detects the RNA (genetic material) specific to the virus and can detect it within days of infection, even in asymptomatic people. The Antigen test (or “rapid” test) combines the nasal sample with a solution that unleashes specific viral proteins that checks for the virus at the present moment. Like a home pregnancy test, the result shows up visually. The test can be done in up to 30 minutes and is reliable when someone has a high viral load, but they are considerably more prone to false-negative results in people with lower loads of virus.
Will sports and entertainment events require proof of vaccination?
Excelsior Pass is already being used by large-scale venues like Madison Square Garden, which requires proof of vaccination or a negative test before entry. But attendees can purchase and undergo a rapid antigen test at the gate for $30 to get into the event. Use of this digital pass can also allow you to increase the size of your wedding guest list or that of another catered event. In the Southern states, the conversation around vaccine passports is still related mainly to travel. For example, American Queen Steamboat Co. will require all crew and guests to be vaccinated beginning July 1. (source)
Will testing go away?
Simply put, no. Public health experts agree that it is premature to eliminate travel requirements such as testing with the unknowns concerning the COVID-19 vaccine and the fact we have not reached herd immunity. Even as vaccine numbers rise, many places will continue to require a negative test from travelers. Adam Barese of Nashville-based FH Testing is an expert on all things pre-travel testing, and his company has been around since well before COVID-19, helping long-term care facilities test on-site for many different diseases.
“We are like a first-class ticket,” says Adam. “We help you know when to get tested based on your plans and make sure that you get the results on time. We basically remove the testing headache from the stress of traveling.” Adam brings up a very interesting point: Even if you are fully vaccinated, you might still encounter negative test requirements in some places. “Vaccination doesn’t mean that you can’t infect someone else,” Adam says. “You can still carry the disease if you’re vaccinated, but it does minimize your chance of hospitalization and death.”
What else should we consider before travel?
“The world continues to change and people are trying to get back out there. With this is going to come a new experience for the traveler,” Adam adds. Most international destinations require a PCR-based negative test within a 72-hour period before arrival. “This creates a little bit of havoc,” Adam says. “With the strict time frames, with people wanting convenience, many can’t leave their test up to chance at places like CVS.” He also notes that travelers should check the requirements of their layover cities, too. FH Testing offers same-day PCR tests and results, seven days a week — a rarity when it comes to the PCR test that many destinations require. FH Testing is also moving to a new, non-invasive collection method that’s much preferred by his customers thus far.
What are other ways technology is aiding the vaccine rollout?
If you have gotten your first vaccine dose, you may have received a text from your local health department. The CDC has recently rolled out V-safe, “a smartphone-based tool that uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine.” (source) Through V-safe, you can quickly tell the CDC if you have any side effects, and, based on your answers, someone from the CDC may call to check on you or get more information. This tool will also remind you to get your second vaccine dose if you need one.
No matter your plans for vaccination or events this year, we hope this information will help you navigate the uncharted territory of travel and movement as we straddle the gap between the “unprecedented times” and the more open — but different — world that awaits us on the other side.
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