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NYC’s vaccine mandate puts controversial (and glitchy) Excelsior Pass back in the spotlight

First there are the glitches, then there’s the hefty price tag.

NYC’s vaccine mandate puts controversial (and glitchy) Excelsior Pass back in the spotlight
[Source Photo: New York State]
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On Tuesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed that the city would be the first to establish a proof-of-vaccination mandate for a slew of activities, including dining indoors, exercising in gyms, and watching movies in theaters. According to de Blasio, proof will be communicated through either the official paper card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); a new citywide health pass set to debut mid-August; or the much-debated statewide Excelsior Pass, which provides a QR code that can be scanned to verify vaccination status.

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As cities across the country may consider following New York’s lead, the Excelsior Pass—a prototype for the kind of vaccine passport necessary, if such a policy were carried out—could be put back in the spotlight for its less-than-favorable attributes.

First, there are the glitches: According to a rundown from the MIT Technology Review, many users reported database errors when using the smartphone app. Furthermore, the system, which operates by pulling information from state immunization records, can be easily foiled by a data entry mistake at a vaccine clinic—a misspelled name or a typo in a birthdate, for example.

More importantly, there’s the hefty price tag: As the New York Times reports, while the state has already spent $2.5 million to engineer the system through a partnership with IBM, the total cost could ultimately multiply to as much as $17 million. That’s as IBM’s three-year contract requires it to create a “road map” to scale the health pass to 20 million individuals—the entire population of New York state—and to also potentially function as proof of age, driver’s license, or other health records.

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But right now, critics argue that those costs are hard to justify. According to the Technology Review, as of early July, the Excelsior Pass has been downloaded about 2 million times, roughly 10% of the share of fully vaccinated New Yorkers. And it’s had very limited use thus far, serving primarily to let viewers into high-end events, such as NBA games or Foo Fighters concerts—a small customer base in an economic climate where many working-class Americans have lost jobs and can barely afford rent.

On the other hand, if the pass were more widely used, that would come with its own problems regarding privacy and security. Some have pointed out that the program’s privacy policy is lacking in transparency and does little to safeguard against the risk of surveillance. And according to the Washington Post, it’s easy to steal a QR code from someone else.

In short: If vaccine passports take off in the coming months, there seems to be plenty of room for improvement. The Excelsior Pass, which was the first state program of its kind, launched this past March.