by Taeton Amos
2020 is over, and with 11 months to go in 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic is still rampant. Recently, however, there have been signs of hope; advancements in vaccines have given the world a path to normalcy that many are eager to take, and the expansion of testing and mask mandates have brought virus numbers lower than they’ve been in months. With these changes, America is closer than ever to something that has eluded it since the pandemic began: contact tracing. Utilizing all these strategies together, the U.S. is attempting to beat back the virus that has ravaged the country for nearly a year. Along with these recent trends towards the better, another health tool has begun to pop up: COVID-19 health pass apps.
When vaccines first came into wide use in the early 1900s they were issued with ‘vaccine papers’ that identified the vaccine recipient and the vaccine they took. These papers were used by school districts, private businesses, and later airplane companies in order to monitor and maintain public health. During times of epidemic, people would use these papers to gain access to services that would otherwise be cut off to them.
Even today, these papers still exist, but the future brings new changes with it; technological newcomers hope to compete against this seemingly outdated system by giving vaccine papers a 21st century update.
COVID health pass apps purportedly provide verification that is quickly accessible through any smartphone. Through this verification, they hope to provide private businesses the luxury of re-opening without risk to their customers, and to provide a sense of confidence in the customer as well that they won’t get sick from something as simple as going out to eat or getting on an airplane. In essence, these apps hope to be an extension of vaccination papers into a new era.
Such apps operate through the magic of 21st century communication. To find an example of how these apps work, look at CommonPass, one of the most popular of the COVID apps currently on the market. The process begins with the user entering in their information and consenting to the app using said information. With that step completed, the app connects to public and private health records, state testing/vaccination databases, and the records of private labs in their umbrella (not every lab has consented to give information to the apps). From there, any test or vaccine you may receive can be pulled up through the app in the form of a unique QR code, which can then be used like vaccine papers would be; presented to those that require them and scanned for verification. With some caveats, that’s how most COVID health pass apps function.
These apps have the potential to solve several problems; for example, standardizing test results. Depending where you get tested or where you travel, your test results may be in a language the health inspector doesn’t speak, or from a testing site they don’t recognize or accept. With these apps, the language barrier is surpassed using the universal language of machines. They also help simplify the complex task of determining the authenticity and credibility of labs. If a lab isn’t recognized by the app, that tips health inspectors off to the veracity of the test results these labs are creating.
Beyond these issues, the apps could potentially solve an even larger problem; restoring faith in travel and recreation. Many believe that if others are required to have these apps to enter a football field, they themselves will feel safer going to said football field. This final issue is the one many app developers are focusing on; in the promotional material for almost every app, there is mention travel, vacations, or some other interactive activity that’s become less common in the world of COVID. The apps seek to re-open these opportunities to those who are healthy and vaccinated, restoring a sense of freedom.
This doesn’t prevent the apps from falling under criticism and suspicion, however. Behind the offer of freedom and an escape from quarantine, the apps hide many of their potential flaws; though they could open up the country for a few, especially in the early days, it comes with detrimental costs. For example, one issue that the apps pose is that of technologically-based discrimination. It may be hard to believe in our modern day that some people may not have access to smartphones, but there are many for which that’s the reality. These people, along with those who may (for whatever reason) not be vaccinated, would be excluded from certain services if these apps are treated as the end-all and be-all of identification.
Possibly the most important issue these apps work hard to address is the danger inherent of giving one’s medical records to private companies. Should some kind of health pass app ever be mandatory for travel, many would view it as a huge blow to their privacy. Even with an altruistic company that tries their best, the risk of hackers gaining access to the information of private citizens remains prevalent, creating an atmosphere of fear around the concept. Furthermore, these apps currently have no widespread oversight in America, making them even riskier, and the potential of private companies trying to profit off an app meant for public use, thus taking advantage of a pandemic to make themselves money, is another common suspicion.
Unfortunately, the apps may simply serve to confuse travelers instead of helping them. Those less familiar with technology may find the apps overly complicated, no matter how well designed the app may be. Even for those with tech experience, there is already a widely used vaccine ID system in place; vaccine papers still exist, after all, and are used widely and recognized by most people. In fact, COVID-19 vaccine kits already come with a paper or digital confirmation that is given to every vaccine recipient. One of the only issues with this system is that a paper ID could be more easily forged than a digital one, which would be a detriment to public health.
With all this taken into account, there are those that believe these apps seem less like the vaccine papers of the 21st century and instead just a more confusing alternative to what already exists. As is often the case with technology, people fear that they will be required to sacrifice privacy for convenience, and that the app, if used as the only source of ID for COVID related health, could help fuel discrimination.
Still, for some, the convenience, trustworthiness, and confidence these apps provide are worth any and all risk that may come along with it. Having one’s entire COVID history at the push of a button is incredibly useful for travelers, and the trusty framework the apps put in place help keep tests accurate. Most importantly, though, is the potential that such applications could help restore faith in industries ravaged by the virus.
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