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The Search For Vaccination Proof That Works Better Than Paper Cards

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Some European countries are inching towards reopening their borders this summer to vaccinated travelers. While tourists from the U.S. and elsewhere will have to show vaccination proof, it's not clear yet how they will do that. And as NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, that is leading to a lot of confusion among those eager to travel abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE RINGING)

KENDRA THORNTON: Royal Travel & Tours - this is Kendra.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's a cellphone, so we can't really say it's ringing off the hook, but travel advisor Kendra Thornton is busier now than she's been in 15 months.

THORNTON: What we're seeing, it's just been an upward trajectory. As more and more people get vaccinated, we just have more people being comfortable with booking travel and planning travel.

SCHAPER: Thornton runs Royal Travel & Tours in Chicago's northern suburbs and says most of her clients have been booking vacations to Florida's beaches, Hawaii and other domestic destinations. But with much of Europe opening up soon, some are eager to go abroad.

THORNTON: We definitely have clients that the second this news came out were like, OK. I want to go to Portugal. I want to go to Greece. I want to go to Italy.

SCHAPER: Those travelers will likely have to prove that they've been vaccinated. And as of now, that's a problem.

THORNTON: It's very confusing, and it's changing every minute right now.

SCHAPER: While travelers can self-report their vaccination status by showing their COVID-19 vaccination card, can you imagine the airport lines? Plus, there is no standard vaccination card. And they can be easily lost, damaged or even forged, says Leonard Marcus, head of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University.

LEONARD MARCUS: We're basically counting on trust when the country is facing a trust deficit. So there's no way to verify that someone is in fact actually vaccinated. It's only their word that, yes, I'm vaccinated.

SCHAPER: Marcus says there needs to be a better way.

MARCUS: There should be either government systems or private sector systems that are reliable that I can use to show to an airline that I've been vaccinated.

SCHAPER: But there is no federal database tracking who's been vaccinated, and the Biden administration says it will not be issuing what some have dubbed vaccine passports. Some cities and states are considering them. New York already has the voluntary Excelsior Pass, but nearly a dozen other states controlled by Republicans are moving in the opposite direction, banning or restricting the use of any sort of vaccine passport or verification system. Again, Leonard Marcus.

MARCUS: This has become so politicized an issue that it's very difficult for us as a country to do the right thing.

SCHAPER: Nonetheless, a majority of Americans support the concept according to Megan Brenan of the Gallup Poll.

MEGAN BRENAN: Fifty-seven percent of Americans said that in order to travel by airplane, they would favor businesses requiring people to show proof that they were vaccinated.

SCHAPER: With no uniform way for travelers to prove to foreign governments that they've been vaccinated, some airlines are trying to step up and develop smartphone apps that will tell customers exactly what documentation they need to provide to enter the country they're going to. Preston Peterson of American Airlines says their app is called VeriFLY.

PRESTON PETERSON: A customer can submit their documentation, have it verified, and then they receive a green check mark or, effectively, an OK-to-travel status that we as an airline trust, the customer can trust, and then they know they're ready to go.

SCHAPER: Other airlines are developing their own similar apps, and the International Air Transport Association has a more universal app called the Travel Pass that's being tested by at least 30 airlines globally. But it will likely take some time for travelers, airlines and others to sort out exactly what will be accepted where as proof of vaccination.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEON NOX'S "TWISTED GETAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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