Travel 2.0: Vaccine Passports and Visas—What’s Next on the Horizon
One of industries perhaps hardest hit by the coronavirus, the travel industry, received welcomed news late last week in the form of CDC guidance stating that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can resume domestic travel and do not need to get tested for COVID-19 before or after travel or self-quarantine after travel.
According to the guidance, released on April 2, 2021, fully vaccinated people need not get tested before leaving the United States (unless required by the destination) or self-quarantine after returning to the United States (unless required by state or local law). With the increasing rate of vaccinations, this is another encouraging sign of a steady approach to some sense of a normalcy, though there are lots of questions about what travel will look like in the months and possibly years ahead.
This change from the agency’s previous recommendation that people “delay travel and stay home,” according to the Washington Post, is based largely on “newly released studies showing the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines.” For example, one study showed the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine reduced infection risk by 90 percent. Highlighting the demand for travel, the Washington Post notes TSA officials reported 26 days in March when more than a million people moved through security checkpoints, compared to only 124,021 on April 1, 2020.
So, what will travel look like going forward?
An option may be a “vaccine passport” or similar arrangement whereby a person’s vaccination status or other related information can be verified. According to CNN, although the White House has said it is not planning to maintain a central vaccinations database, officials are “working with a range of companies on establishing standards” for people to show they have been vaccinated. Other countries also are working on “vaccine passport”-type technology to facilitate travel while containing COVID-19.
A vaccine passport likely will involve a massive collection of individuals’ personal information, a price many may be willing to pay for vacation or work-related travel. Some involved in efforts to build such systems acknowledge the challenges, ranging from ensuring the systems work correctly to preventing identity theft and fraud. The World Health Organization echoed these concerns in a recent bulletin discussing similar technology it refers to as “immunity passports”:
While there may be limits to maintaining personal immunity certification information as private and confidential, measures should be implemented to minimize confidentiality breaches and non-consensual identification to reduce privacy concerns and protect nonimmune-certified individuals from any potential stigma and harm.
With business travel likely to increase, businesses quick to adopt a vaccine passport or similar system will have their own issues to consider concerning the privacy and security of their employees data and use of such systems, particularly in connection with international travel as the standards and requirements may be different.
Data privacy and security challenges are but one concern as travel in a post-COVID vaccination world picks up. Continued concern over COVID-19 variants combined with slow inoculation rates in many countries mean that U.S. consulates (which issue travel visas enabling international travelers to come to the U.S.) may be unable to keep up. Over the past year, international travel bans have proliferated across the world , starting with the travel bans and visa bans put into place beginning on March of 2020 by the Trump administration which were quickly followed by a succession of travel bans in other countries. The resulting patchwork of travel bans and rules resulted in shutting down most international travel to the United States, as well as worldwide, which has created a backlog of cases at U.S. consulates. Consulates have been operating at reduced staff for health and safety reasons and have struggled to implement the ever-changing travel bans. Throughout the last year the processing times for visa processing have steadily increased, if a visa was available at all. As travel opens up, adding a “vaccine passport” to the long list of travel requirements for obtaining a visa will further strain the consulates if they will be expected to implement it. Although consulates are familiar with handling personal identifying information, after all a visa application covers practically every personal biographical detail of the applicant’s life, a vaccine passport is an entirely new thing. How any such requirement would be balanced against the economic and business needs for travel is anyone’s guess.
As organizations reimagine how they do business, and now how travel will fit in to that mix, the list of things that need to be considered before getting on the road again continues to expand.