New York’s digital vaccine app, the Excelsior Pass, will likely cost far more than originally expected, with projected costs nearing $27 million, according to newly obtained documents shared with The New York Times.
The pass is stepping into the spotlight this week as restaurants, museums, gyms and other indoor venues in New York City are asking customers — often for the first time — to show proof of at least one vaccine dose as part of a new city mandate.
More than three million people have already retrieved an Excelsior Pass, which consists of a QR code that can be stored on a smartphone or printed out, the state said. The app verifies applications against city and state vaccination records, and the code is generated only once someone is considered fully vaccinated, defined as at least 14 days after the final shot.
Through a Freedom of Information Request, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an advocacy group that has expressed concern about the privacy and security implications of vaccine passports, received the latest contract between the state and I.B.M., which is developing the app.
In June, the advocacy group provided The Times with the original version of the contract between the state and I.B.M., which estimated the total cost of the project would be $17 million over three years. Even that was far more than the $2.5 million in development costs that Mr. Cuomo and his staff had publicly mentioned when announcing the arrival of the nation’s first government-sponsored digital app that verifies proof of vaccination.
The updated version of the contract, signed by the state’s Office of Information Technology Services in late June, adds another $10 million. New York, the contract states, had already incurred an extra $656,421 in charges for technical support and updates. And a Phase 2 of the project, which was mentioned but not described in detail in the original contract, ended up costing more than double than estimated, rising to $4.7 million from $2.2 million.
“We always said that Excelsior Pass would be a high-tech distraction from real public health measures, but we had no idea the price would go up this high,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Even as New Yorkers find themselves on the hook for millions more, the app still isn’t able to do a lot of the basics.”
The governor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment about the contract.
The contract lists some of the issues that software engineers were called in to fix, such as incorrect error messages and crashes. Engineers added foreign language capability, access for the visually impaired and, to address a common problem, made it so the phone number entered by a user does not need to match what is listed in the vaccine registries. The fixes are ongoing. Not until June, the contract indicates, did the app make it possible for someone who has periods in their name (like T.J.) to retrieve a pass.
Some users are still having trouble finding their passes, sometimes because the registries have outdated information listed, like an old ZIP code. In order to find a person’s vaccination record, the app checks his or her name, date of birth, ZIP code and county of vaccination against the vaccine registry, and nearly all information must match. Some 4 percent of users who tried to get passes in the app’s opening months were unable to, the state said.
Phase 2 of the contract included the development of what the state has called Excelsior Pass Plus, which launched on Aug. 4. The main enhancement of the Plus pass is that it now includes the date, place and type of vaccination in the QR code, instead of just verifying that a person is vaccinated. That information will be shared when the app is scanned, but it allows for a wider range of places to use it as vaccination proof.
Understand the State of Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- Vaccine rules . . . and businesses. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, with varying approaches. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. On Aug. 11, California announced that it would require teachers and staff of both public and private schools to be vaccinated or face regular testing, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced that proof of vaccination would be required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a broad range of activities. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
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