All I want for Christmas is a universal digital health travel pass

December 2, 2020

Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, IATA announced work on a universally-accepted digital health passport that will document proof of COVID-19 vaccination and, presumably, virus test results.  In addition, I expect the e-record will include all my medical history relevant to travel restrictions. 

About time!  I wonder why this hasn’t been developed before.  By now I should already possess a card with my personal health information, including inoculations, stored or an app on my phone that pulls it up. And it ought to be in a standard approved format that’s accepted worldwide, just as is my passport.  Info germane to my travel and destination itineraries should already be linked to airline rez systems, too.  That protects everyone, not just me, when crammed cheek-by-jowl into a narrow aluminum-fiber tube at 35,000 feet.

Meanwhile, I wait with the rest of the world for the vaccine.  Then I can stop being a hermit.  And travel again!

Until that happens, and pending my turn to be vaccinated, the CDC is advising I get tested three times if I take a flight to anywhere.  They recommend a test 1-3 days before I fly, another 1-3 days before my return flight, and a third test 3-5 days after getting home.  And to quarantine at home for 7 days even if I test negative.  It sounds easy, but the truth is: not so much.

Plenty of Internet sites, including CDC, will point me to testing facilities wherever I am, and some tests are free. Regardless, it’s a pain to go to the trouble (and expense when tests aren’t gratis) to locate a testing facility and spend time going there when traveling, often waiting in a queue, and completing forms I’ve done before several times already.

Added to the time and trouble is the stress.  Up to now, I haven’t obsessed about the need to keep my distance from folks to avoid getting the coronavirus; I’ve just done it by mostly staying at home and seeing very few people.  But as my first flight since early summer approaches this month, a sense of dread is creeping in.  The feeling nags at me to be even more careful than usual.  Ever the steadfast quarantine disciple, and with a vaccine near at hand, I naturally aim to keep my risk low and to stay healthy. 

Yet I will make this mid-December trip to Minnesota and Iowa see our son, a concert pianist, in his final college performance.  His recital won’t happen but once, and I mean to be there.  To keep myself and others safe, I plan to follow the CDC guidelines for the three tests.  I’ve already researched where and when to get tested at my destination and back here at home.

Those test results as well as my Covid-19 vaccination could be recorded on my universal digital health pass if one was available.

Since no such e-document yet exists, I wondered what airport, airline, state, and country requirement are right now.  I need to know for my December domestic trip (just 2 flights), but also for my planned trip in May to South Africa (total of 6 flights).  Checking the airports, TSA, and Delta Air Lines for online guidance was not very helpful.  Just the usual temperature-taking, social distancing, hand-washing, and mask requirements.

Directly querying the Raleigh/Durham Airport Authority didn’t yield any more definitive information, either, but putting my questions to a South African career professional expert on African travel brought these useful responses (answers in italics):

  • I read that to enter South Africa a negative test result is required that is not older than 72 hours from the date of departure. That is correct.
  • I read that for South Africa I might need “travel insurance which covers medical expenses and unexpected hotel stays in case of falling ill while travelling.”  See one source of insurance here. Traveling in Africa in normal times without proper comprehensive travel insurance is just not smart. It has been a requirement for the last 40 years (as long as I’ve been involved in travel in Africa).
  • Which kind of Covid tests are acceptable (some are much more reliable than others)? Travelers arriving to South Africa must present a negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate in English. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction. As far as I’m aware, you need one of these before boarding any international flight nowadays.
  • Where will passengers will able to get tested? Your doctor will be able to assist you with this prior to your departure for your Journey for your arrival certificate. If a test is needed while travelling, for example, going from one country to another or returning to your country of origin, there are numerous testing facilities available in each country. It will depend on each country and is subject to change, so best to check prior to the travels.
  • How much will tests cost (I read $70-250 or more; if required each way, those costs would be doubled, and then quadrupled for a family of four, for instance)? Approx. $70-120 per test in South Africa.
  • Who will bear the burden of those test costs?  The cost and trouble to get testing will deter me, and I suspect many, from traveling again regularly if the cost and trouble is burdensome. You will, unfortunately, be responsible.
  • What kind of official or unofficial documentation will suffice as proof of testing? A negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate in English in South Africa. And you need the actual test result printout. Electronic copies do not work.
  • What about the return journey?  That is, same questions as above if test are required for returning home. A negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate in English at most destinations, but it is best to check per destination prior to travels. Tests can be done at airports and nearby clinics in some countries while some offer testing to be done at hotels and lodges.
  • What about sudden trips when I have to drop everything and run to the airport for a client?  That is, how will I be able to comply on short notice?  If I can’t, then the time value of being able to fly is considerably diminished. COVID-19 has made it more challenging for last minute journeys, but once you have your details in place, then we will be able to assist with the latest information.
  • If someone has had Covid-19 and is testing negative, will they be allowed on a flight? Yes, as long as they are negative when boarding the flight.
  • If someone has had Covid-19 and can prove they are negative and have antibodies, why should they be tested within 72 hours?  Again, what proof will they be required to show? You would have to check this with your doctor; however, some countries and associations feel that there is not sufficient evidence that you cannot contract COVID-19 more than once as there were a few cases recorded where people had COVID-19 twice.
  • When vaccines are available, will that negate testing requirements? We will have to wait for an update on this and cannot advise at this stage.
  • If so, then what documentation will suffice as proof of vaccination? We simply have no idea.
  • Of course I realize rules and requirements are in flux, but we need a universal digital health pass.  We really wish it was this easy, but right now, unfortunately, each country has its own sets of rules and regulations.  

My takeaway is that all frequent travelers will greatly benefit from a universal digital health pass with the features and functions described first above.  That is, I think, precisely what IATA is touting as under development. 

I sure hope commercial aviation and travel industry professionals are focused on achieving the critical elements of standardized proof of medical requirements, ease of compliance, and reasonable cost in such an e-document.  If not, then I fear the difficulty of leaping all the present testing proof hurdles will constrain my flying even after I am vaccinated. That’s why all I want for Christmas is a universal digital health pass.

6 thoughts on “All I want for Christmas is a universal digital health travel pass

  1. It will be most important to test for a successful OUTCOME of vaccination, i.e. the presence of appropriate antibodies, rather than just testing for having had a vaccination. This is a long established medical practice, as is applied ordinarily in hepatitis A and B vaccinations.

  2. I recently went to Portugal on a 3 week work trip. Got the required PCR test 70 hour prior to departure – TAP was checking documents prior to boarding. Immigration was checking documents on arrival in Lisbon. On return to USA, no test required to get on the plane or to enter USA. That is my recent international travel experience (early Nov, 2020) – who knows what it might be by May. I really wish the airlines would require tests for everyone; I would feel much safer.

    1. Thank you, Dan. Could you please share: How much trouble was it to get the test results back within the time frame required (72 hours before departure), what kind of documentation was required to satisfy TAP and Portuguese Immigration, and how much did it cost? 70 hours was cutting it pretty close, huh?

      1. It took a little research to find a lab doing PCR testing for travel. Cost was $95. I would highly suggest calling to ensure your local lab is doing tests for travel without a doctors orders AND they will guarantee results in a timely manner. Also, you will want to book a time and fill out required paperwork online ahead of time. The lab I used emailed the results 28 hours after the test. I printed multiple copies so I had one for the airline, one for immigration and one to keep if needed during my stay. Any CLIA lab should provide a document sufficient for the airline and immigration. I cut it a bit close on time due to flight connections plus flight being on a weekend .

  3. We have our shot record stapled to the last page of our passports – primarily to show that we have had a Yellow Fever shot recently for trips to certain areas of the world. Why not just enter the COVIS vaccination in the existing and universally recognized shot record?

  4. What you will get is a CDC COVID Immunization Record Card documenting vaccination in writing – both doses – that will act as proof of vaccination and as a reminder to get your second dose. See: Keep it with your yellow “International Certificate of Vaccination” booklet showing you received your yellow fever vaccination. I keep a record of my other vaccinations (hepatitis A and B, polio, MMR, tetanus, etc) in my yellow book, too.

    IATA will be irrelevant, as it always is. And, sorry, no electronic records for you, but your doctor or immunizer must report all vaccinations electronically, with manufacturer and lot number.

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