The debate over the requirement of vaccine passports has raged since the early 1960’s when the World Health Organization (WHO) created the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) as an official record designed to prove inoculation to certain diseases during international travel. Since its creation, ICVP, also known as the ‘Yellow Card,’ listed certifications for four vaccinations: Yellow Fever, Cholera, Typhus Fever and Smallpox. In the midst of the newest pandemic, the WHO is being pressured to revise its current Yellow Card certifications by adding the SARS-CoV-2 vaccination as a necessary inoculation in countries that currently require the Yellow Card for entrance, which include the Netherlands, South Africa and China. The possibility of a digital version of this card being required across the U.S. for events and travel has been met with contentious outcry on both sides of the debate. As of Friday, March 26, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced the launch of a program called the Excelsior Pass that will serve as a digital vaccine passport that New Yorkers can display to prove vaccination records or the recent receival of a negative SARS-CoV-2 test. This digital passport is currently not mandatory in New York City, but is expected to expand across large scale events and into smaller arts, entertainment and event venues.

Concern surrounding the idea that proof of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccination will be required for travel within the U.S. was met with a press release by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki who told reporters on Tuesday, April 6, “The U.S. government won’t issue so-called vaccine passports. There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.” Despite the federal government denying such a requirement, numerous states, employers, venues and other private entities have begun working on vaccine passports similar in execution to the Excelsior Pass for visitors and employees. While private companies can legally require vaccinations as a part of their hiring procedures, vaccinations should never be required for public transportation or use of federal land and resources. On Tuesday, April 13, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) reassured Montanans that no such passport would be required. “I strongly encourage Montanans to get a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine, which is our best path to protect our family and friends and get back to a more normal life,” Gianforte said. “Receiving one is entirely voluntary and will not be mandated by the State of Montana, nor compelled through vaccine passports, vaccine passes, or other compulsory means. We are committed to protecting individual liberty and personal privacy.”  The right to control one’s health and body is centered on a single and most crucial principle —choice. The argument of personal choice is forefront in discussions such as sexual and reproductive rights and experimental medical trials. Medical care must be free from interference; patient autonomy in healthcare is imperative for safe and reliable care. 

Significant dissent to the idea of choice regarding vaccinations is centered around the written opinion of Associate Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, “A community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,” found in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, published in 1905. While the safety of a community is a concern that should be regarded with utmost care, our government was founded on the principle that individual rights should never be sacrificed at the hand of perceived benefit to the masses.  

Although the federal government is adamant that a vaccine passport will never be required, there is no law or way to restrict private companies, organizations, buildings and resources from requiring vaccinations. Concerns surrounding the legality of private businesses requiring vaccinations have been argued incessantly but are futile under the bounds of current legislation. Private companies and organizations are already free to refuse employment or business dealings with whomever they desire, with the only exceptions being intolerances that fall under the federal Fair Employment Practices Law and federal and state anti-discrimination laws. However, these exceptions do not include vaccination status. Moving forward this year, states will have the ability to impose additional regulations on top of federal law, meaning that individual states can enact legislation that prevents private operations from distinguishing based on vaccination status. 

The regulations regarding college students have been caught up in the discussion for several months, as different colleges are taking extreme steps to prevent the spread of the virus. Universities like Rutgers, Brown and Cornell have already announced that they will require proof of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccination prior to attendance this fall. Should colleges be able to require students to prove they have been injected with a COVID-19 vaccine in the same manner in which they require rigorously-tested vaccines for measles, mumps and polio? The idea of mandating an injection is more than concerning. Even after properly vetting and testing vaccines that then prove to be safe and effective, the choice of vaccination should remain the patient’s choice.