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OpinionEditorial

Tracking our shots

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Today we highlight a complex issue in the news, provide multiple perspectives and present our view on the controversy. Our hope is to start a conversation that better informs all of us, and we invite you to share your insights. Email them to letters@newsday.com with the subject line “Passport” or tweet to @NewsdayOpinion.

Graduation Day is coming, and in-person ceremonies will be allowed.

It's wedding season, and receptions, complete with guests and food and music, are permitted, too.

There's baseball to play — all summer long.

And don't forget about the return of Broadway, hopefully by fall.

But the key to all of that — and New York's path forward — lies in the emphasis on COVID-19 testing and vaccination. The only way to ensure larger events remain safe is to do everything possible to avoid spreading the virus.

Those attending large gatherings are required to submit either proof of full vaccination or a negative test result. It's a trend likely to continue. And it's a significant factor in the desire to add capacity, as Nassau County Executive Laura Curran recently has sought for the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum this spring.

Most individuals still are handing over a piece of paper showing a negative test result, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's white card with the dates of their vaccine doses. Last month, New York introduced the Excelsior Pass, an app with a QR code that allows people to quickly show that they're cleared to attend. Other states have online portals, and private developers are designing additional apps to address the issue.

These "vaccine passports" have spurred an intense debate. Some people worry about civil liberty infringements and government tracking, while others are eager to find a bridge back to a normal lifestyle.

THE CASE

The need for a 'passport'

When New York introduced the Excelsior Pass, its primary function was to give sporting-event attendees an easier way to show proof of testing or vaccination. But the question is whether it might go further. Could private businesses use it to determine who's allowed in or which employees can return to work? Could airlines use it to restrict travel? Could patients use it to share the information with doctors who have no way of confirming such medical history?

Importantly, the state continues to allow physical proof of testing or vaccination as an option equal to the digital pass, so those without a smartphone or with privacy concerns have an option.

The outcome, of course, is the same. A negative test or vaccination creates a critical safety zone at a sports or music event, personal celebration, workplace or for travel. Mask wearing and appropriate distancing further protects attendees.

THE COUNTER

What about privacy?

The argument against an electronic pass starts with concerns over privacy, as individuals worry that databases of medical information would be shared with other states, the federal government and other public and private entities. There are concerns about hacking as well. Those are realistic. But New York State already knows the details of those who were vaccinated, and the Excelsior Pass doesn't contain any information beyond proof of a negative test or vaccination. The state says it has protocols in place to stop the data from being stored or shared, and doesn't track who is attending what event.

Another legitimate concern: Some vaccination and testing records aren't registering properly with the online pass, leaving some individuals unable to get or verify their passes. The state needs to iron out those issues and work with federal agencies like Veterans Affairs, which is administering millions of doses, to make sure those shots are recorded properly.

Some criticism has gone even further. The pass has been labeled "Digital Surveillance," "Medical Apartheid" and "Social Crediting." These critics argue the pass creates a societal dichotomy of haves and have-nots, limits individual freedoms, and monitors our actions. That's neither true nor helpful to addressing real questions and finding solutions.

THE CONTEXT

We're still getting sick

The pandemic's grip is lessening but it's not over. New Yorkers are still getting sick, they're still being hospitalized and they're still dying. We have to find a way to reopen the economy as widely and safely as possible. The only way to make that happen is if the vast majority of people get vaccinated. For now, we have to control who's attending large gatherings, or even visiting a family member in a hospital or nursing home, to prevent the spread of infection. A digital passport like the Excelsior Pass is considered critical. So far, the Biden administration doesn't have the appetite for a national pass. States like New York will have to work with one another, and with private entities, so digital passes are accepted across state lines and by private corporations.

OUR TAKE

Done well, it can help

Most of us agree on some goals: We don't want to get sick, we don't want those we love to get sick, and we want the pandemic to end so life can return to normal. But how do we get there?

A digital passport like the Excelsior Pass isn't the only answer, but it's an appropriate piece of the solution. It has to be used with restraint and clarity, so everyone is aware of how it works, how data is used, and what the alternatives are. Properly handled, our freedoms won't be undermined, but our safety will be protected.

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