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'Vaccine passports': Will they be available in the U.S. in time for summer?

NBC News senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres writes about his search for vaccine certification.

After getting both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, I stored my appointment card in a safe. As a lead instructor for NATO special forces training, I'll need to prove my vaccination status before traveling to NATO headquarters in Belgium when in-person learning resumes, most likely this summer.

But my vaccine card, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will actually not be enough to prove that I am fully vaccinated, especially for international travel. The cards are too easy to forge.

With more than 335 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine administered around the world so far, according to the World Health Organization, the race is on to develop a Covid-19 “vaccine passport.”

While planning for my NATO trip, I soon learned an official form wasn’t readily available in the U.S. yet — and may not be soon.

Vaccine card for Dr. John Torres
The vaccine card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. John Torres / NBC News

Vaccine passports that could determine what people can and can’t do come loaded with ethical considerations. Vaccines are still not easily available around the world and people would be divided into “haves” and “have nots.” Earlier this week, Dr. Mike Ryan, director of WHO's emergencies program, said using vaccine certification as a requirement for travel “is not advised.”

Proof-of-immunization cards already exist for yellow fever, and I’ve used one for years to travel to Colombia, Ecuador or anywhere around the globe as needed.

Countries such as Iceland, Poland, Portugal and Cyprus have already announced plans for proof-of-vaccination certificates. The European Union expects to present a “digital green pass,” which will combine information on vaccination, recovery from the illness and results from a test for people who aren’t yet fully vaccinated, possibly as soon as this week. And Qantas airline has started its first customer trial of a CommonPass digital health app, which allows people to upload their negative coronavirus test results or proof of vaccination for international flights.

The U.S. is nowhere near that.

The CDC is currently discouraging nonessential travel. A CDC spokesperson said the agency “has not yet issued guidance on management of vaccinated people during travel, and there are no established international standards for vaccines or documentation of vaccination.”

Travel is expected to be included in upcoming guidance from the CDC, but the spokesperson declined to say whether it would be issued in time for summer.

Yellow fever vaccination
The yellow fever immunization card I've used for years to travel to countries such as Colombia or Ecuador.Courtesy Dr. John Torres

Some states do provide Covid-19 vaccine status proof, but it’s not consistent and can be a cumbersome process.

Just a few examples from state departments of health:

  • Colorado, where I was vaccinated, requires a notarized form to be emailed along with a copy of your driver’s license.
  • California, which has administered at least 11 million doses as of Friday, does have a system to verify vaccine status, but it “is for use by providers and not intended for use by the general public,” according to Darrel Ng, senior communications adviser for the California Covid-19 task force.
  • Florida’s health department responded via email, noting, “Persons may retrieve a copy of their vaccination records through their local County Health Department or Private Provider.” Given the high rate of “vaccine tourism” Florida dealt with earlier this year, it’s unclear what someone would do if they were vaccinated in Florida but are not a resident.
  • The New York State Department of Health didn’t respond to multiple requests.
Image: Dr John Torres receives a Covid-19 vaccination shot
The vaccine card, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, won't be enough to prove that I am fully vaccinated, especially for international travel. Courtesy Dr. John Torres

There are companies in the U.S. developing vaccine certificates for smartphone apps. The idea is that when you fly into a country, you scan the app at border control. If it validates your vaccine status or negative test result, then you can skip the country's quarantine process. If you don’t have a pass, you might be required to quarantine, most likely for 14 days at your expense.

IBM is working on a “digital health pass” that uses blockchain for security and authentication. The IBM system will include vaccine status or test results for people who have not been vaccinated, spokesperson Carolyn Castel of IBM Watson Health said.

The plan is that the U.S. government, through the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC or individual state health departments, would upload verified vaccine data to the digital health pass. Castel declined to say when it would be available.

For now, the CDC vaccine cards are the best we have. Going forward, when Covid-19 vaccinations are widely available, some type of vaccine certificate or passport will likely be needed, not only for travel abroad but possibly even to get into sporting events, theaters, hotels or take a trip on a cruise ship.