'Excelsior Pass' vaccine passport for Yankee Stadium entry pushes MLB into pandemic politics

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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 the latest flashpoint in pandemic politics.

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

The vaccine passports are considered a way to help businesses, eateries and entertainment hotspots open safely by letting people know if they’re around people generating antibodies against the virus.

Typically conceived as an app with a scannable code, most developers are awaiting guidance from the Biden administration on how the 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 recently announced 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 there might be hiccups. “If I were going to Yankee Stadium, I’d bring my CDC [vaccination] card, too, just in case.”

The White House says there will be no federal database of vaccine-verified persons or a mandate to hold a vaccine credential, though that hasn’t stopped the outcry among conservatives who see it as another bureaucratic hurdle or example of Big Brother overreach.

Donald Trump Jr. likened the concept to communist China, while 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 last year’s culture wars and firestorms over statewide business restrictions and mask mandates — debates that continue today, as the Biden White House calls on red states to reimpose or continue mask rules as virus cases tick upward again.

Mr. DeSantis, who has boasted about reopening Florida’s economy, said he’s worried 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 Republicans and liberals who have been worried about equity issues from the start, amid reports that minorities who were hardest hit by the virus now have lower vaccination rates in major cities.

At the same time, governors who balk at the passports could find themselves at odds with major companies in their states that see the tools 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 the 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 even prompt people to avoid traveling or attending events if it gets too messy.

“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 individuals to share their health 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 allegations 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 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 Yankee 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 were vaccinated in New York, and many fans will come from out of state.

The New York Mets also are using 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.

The effort comes as officials underscore the importance of vaccination in wrangling the pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the 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.

Ryan Lovelace contributed to this report.

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