- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Take me out to the ballgame — and bring your vaccine passport.

Fans heading to Yankee Stadium for Opening Day baseball Thursday can use New York’s “Excelsior Pass” as proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the limited-attendance game, providing an early and visible tryout of verification codes that are swiftly becoming a flashpoint in pandemic politics.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, embraced the technology in a partnership with IBM, but South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, called vaccine passports “oppressive” and “un-American.” Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said he plans to forbid such requirements in Florida.

Issuing vaccine passports is considered a way to help businesses, eateries and entertainment hot spots open safely by letting people know that others nearby are generating antibodies against the coronavirus.

The passport is typically conceived as an app with a scannable code. Most developers are awaiting guidance from the Biden administration on how vaccine passports should be structured to help businesses and society reopen while safeguarding privacy.

The apps also could play a role on college campuses. Rutgers University in New Jersey has announced that it will require students to show proof of vaccination if they plan to return to campus for the fall semester.

New York’s voluntary, first-in-the-nation trial “will be a test case,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

“Their rollout is very important,” he said, noting hiccups might arise. “If I were going to Yankee Stadium, I’d bring my CDC [vaccination] card, too, just in case.”

The White House said there will be no federal database of vaccine-verified people or a mandate to hold a vaccine credential. That hasn’t stopped an outcry among conservatives, who see the vaccine passport as another bureaucratic hurdle or example of Big Brother overreach.

Donald Trump Jr. likened the concept to communist China, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conservative firebrand from Georgia, called it “Biden’s Mark of the Beast.”

“Will you need to show your vaccine passport to vote?” tweeted Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican.

The debate evokes the culture wars and firestorms over statewide business restrictions and mask mandates last year. Those debates continue as the Biden White House calls on states to reimpose or continue mask rules as the number of COVID-19 cases ticks upward again.

Mr. DeSantis, who has boasted about reopening Florida’s economy, said he is worried that unvaccinated people won’t be treated fairly by government entities or businesses.

“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply participate in normal society,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Mr. Caplan said reports of unequal treatment in society will be a “complaint we’re going to hear” as some can prove vaccination while others wait in line or decline the shots. That might forge strange alliances between conservatives and liberals. Many on the left worry about equity issues with reports that minorities, who have been hit hardest by COVID-19, have lower vaccination rates in major cities.

Governors who balk at the passports could find themselves at odds with major companies in their states that see the tool as a way to ensure a safe environment for workers and customers.

“I think they’re going to do it anyway because it’s good for their business,” Mr. Caplan said.

Several groups are competing to develop the technology needed for vaccine passports.

The World Economic Forum is working with the Switzerland-based nonprofit Commons Project on its CommonPass tool, especially for international travelers to document their health status.

The emerging patchwork of developers and systems could lead to confusion or keep people from traveling or attending events.

“An overriding problem will be lack of commonality for acceptance of such apps. Each different country or venue may require a different verification app,” said Harry Severance, an adjunct assistant professor at the Duke University School of Medicine.

IBM, which worked with New York, has designed a Digital Health Pass. It uses blockchain technology for vaccinated people to share their status through an encrypted digital wallet on their smartphones that the company said does not share personal or medical information.

The Excelsior Pass takes information the user provides and searches state health department records to verify vaccination or test results before issuing a pass with the person’s name, date of birth, pass type and pass expiration date.

Mr. Cuomo, who has faced questions about his handling of COVID-19 and sexual harassment accusations in recent weeks, touted the app as “another tool in our toolbox.”

“As more New Yorkers get vaccinated each day and as key public health metrics continue to regularly reach their lowest rates in months, the first-in-the-nation Excelsior Pass heralds the next step in our thoughtful, science-based reopening,” he said in launching the initiative last week.

Darrell West, director of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, said it will be good for Americans “to have a pilot project somewhere” to see how the vaccine passport works in practice.

“That would give people a sense of what it does and how people use it. If it allows people to attend concerts or large sporting events, I can see people supporting it because they will see its benefits,” Mr. West said.

The New York app is voluntary and is one of multiple ways Yankees fans can gain entry into the stadium as the 2021 season gets underway. Fans also can present proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours of the game or a paper vaccination card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Options are important because the Excelsior Pass applies only to people who are vaccinated in New York, and many fans will come from out of state.

The New York Mets also will use the Excelsior pass when play gets underway at Citi Field on April 8.

Both teams are hosting fans at 20% capacity, or about 11,000 for the Yankees and 8,400 for the Mets.

Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Times Union Center in Albany are slated to make use of the Excelsior Pass, which also will be used at smaller arts, entertainment and event venues by Friday.

Officials are making the effort to underscore the importance of vaccination in wrangling the pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday that available vaccines produce solid antibody and T-cell responses against fast-moving variants of the coronavirus, even though the shots were designed against the common, or “wild type,” strain.

“There’s a spillover effect against the variant,” Dr. Fauci said.

In not-so-positive news, workers at a Baltimore factory that is churning out vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca reportedly mixed up the ingredients of the two vaccines, potentially spoiling about 15 million doses of the J&J version.

The New York Times reported that the mix-up doesn’t affect doses in circulation now because they were made in the Netherlands. But future doses were supposed to come from the Emergent Biosolutions plant in Baltimore, so the problem could slow some deliveries.

J&J said it still met its goal of delivering 20 million doses by the end of March and expects to give the U.S. 100 million doses by the end of June. It characterized the mistake as a sign that quality control measures are working.

“This quality control process identified one batch of drug substance that did not meet quality standards at Emergent Biosolutions, a site not yet authorized to manufacture drug substance for our COVID-19 vaccine,” the company said. “This batch was never advanced to the filling and finishing stages of our manufacturing process.”

• Ryan Lovelace contributed to this article.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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