Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Quietly and over some objections, a national digital vaccine card has emerged

Whether they realize it or not, nearly 200 million people in the United States now likely have a COVID-19 digital vaccine card.

The digital pass known as a Smart Health Card is voluntary and is minimal by design to protect personal information. It contains a person’s name, date of birth and the dates and brands of vaccination doses, all contained within a type of scannable bar code known as a QR code.

And after a relatively quiet start, it has built up momentum in recent months as more states and companies have signed up, making it a de facto national digital vaccine card.

“The beautiful thing about this is that this multistate alliance is a coalition of interested people,” said Dr. Brian Anderson, chief digital health practitioner at MITER, a research nonprofit, and an architect of Health Card.

Any such card seemed like a remote possibility a year ago, when people first started getting paper cards as proof of their COVID vaccination. The Biden administration said in March that it would not pioneer any national health passes and would instead defer to the private sector, and the idea of ​​a vaccine “passport” faced opposition and even sanctions. particularly in Republican-led states such as Alabama and Texas.

Rather than an app, the Smart Health Card is open-source computer code that anyone can use to ping a verified source of health data and generate unique QR codes. Digital cards are now widely available from more than 400 sources, including states, pharmacies and health care organizations.

the fact that the system exists in any form, a victory for a loose coalition of technologists, non-profit groups and mostly Democratic states, which championed the development of a digital vaccine card even before the first coronavirus shots were administered.

“It’s a de facto standard,” said Rick Clough, California’s chief technology innovation officer. “It’s essentially a generic way for residents to secure that digital copy and then use it.”

digital card Offers few benefits beyond a paper card. QR codes cannot be forged like paper cards, as a restaurant or music venue can use a scanner app to verify that it is valid. By adding a convenience factor, people can re-download the QR code if they lose it.

People can obtain a QR code from their state health authority if they have now been vaccinated in one of the 13 participating states, but they may also be able to obtain them from a hospital or national pharmacy chain, such as Albertsons, Stores like CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens or Walmart if any of their locations have the vaccine.

Vaccine QR codes are also spreading internationally. Japan introduced a similar system last month, and Ontario, Canada, requires scannable proof of vaccination for people to eat inside restaurants or go inside certain other businesses. There is an increasing need for QR codes as part of international airline travel.

Within the US, QR codes are still voluntary. California and Louisiana became the first states to introduce smart health cards last June, and the number of issuers slowly grew before picking up momentum over time.

Colorado signed in November, followed by Connecticut and Illinois in December. On Monday, Massachusetts became the 13th state to voluntarily adopt the system, and another 10 or so states are exploring the possibility privately, Anderson said.

According to the state health department, Washington has issued about 840,000 QR codes. This is equivalent to about 11 percent of the state’s population. The numbers are similar in Colorado and New Jersey.

QR codes also work on paper, in case people prefer to print them out rather than keep them on the phone.

Klau, a former Google manager, has advised other states to implement the system. In California alone, 7 million individuals have downloaded their QR code, and they’ve estimated that about 80 percent of the vaccinated US population of 247 million people have access to a smart health card if they check with their state health authority or Want one through the site. They were vaccinated, as in a pharmacy or hospital.

“It is inspiring to see that the effort at the grassroots level is not only gaining momentum, but is fully developed,” he added. “It certainly hasn’t been mandated.”

An important feature is that QR codes are standardized and interoperable, so they operate across state lines. A New Jersey resident traveling to San Francisco can use the same system as a Californian to authenticate vaccination.

And they can work internationally. Klau said countries including the United Kingdom, Israel and Singapore have said they will recognize QR codes if Americans present them abroad.

It is unclear whether the Biden administration will ever support the project. The US Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to requests for comment.

But those involved in the project said it would have run more smoothly if President Joe Biden had agreed to coordinate it.

“This has forced many states to take leadership roles in implementing and coordinating multistate alliances,” said Anderson, co-leader of the Vaccine Credentialing Initiative, or VCI.

Anderson said other countries don’t always know who to talk to in the US to plan a cross-border system. “They are turning to the states, they are turning to the VCI, and it is a challenge for a state to conduct foreign diplomacy,” he said.

One obstacle to creating a truly national digital vaccine card is that there is no federal database of vaccination records. Each state maintains its own registry of vaccination records, so either the states or health care providers are required to issue attested copies or certificates.

Some of the most thorny political questions remain in the air nationally, including: Should a business have the right to turn someone away without a vaccine QR code? Or in a pandemic, should a city or state also require businesses to turn people away, as in Canada? What about people who are not vaccinated for health reasons?

“We won’t be safe until venues are able to *require* smart health QR codes and stop accepting paper cards, or photos of cards. And that won’t happen until state or local governments Don’t do that,” said Jamie Zawinsky, a software developer who owns DNA Lounge, a nightclub in San Francisco. He wants customers to have a QR code or, for now, their paper CDC card.

DNA Lounge not only requires people to display a QR code, but it also scans the code using a smartphone app to verify that the codes are authentic – it takes the extra step the club has to take anywhere in the US. Also makes it one of the few businesses.

Anderson said the primary scanning app available, the Smart Health Card Verifier app, has been used about 750,000 times this month, and the trend line indicates that usage is doubling month by month. He said he does not know where the scanning is taking place, because by design neither the makers of the health card nor the state have the capacity to collect that data.

Only a few places in the US require proof of vaccination to enter indoor businesses, and that list is slowly growing. A mandate in Boston is set to take effect Saturday, even as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has pushed for keeping the state system voluntary.

“The administration does not require residents to show proof of vaccination to enter any location, but this tool will help residents who wish to access and produce a digital copy of their records,” his office said in a statement. Huh.”

The idea that airlines or even local businesses might try to collect data from digital health cards remains a major concern for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group in San Francisco that deals with online privacy. and who criticized the health card shortly after it was adopted by California last June. Them.

“The scanning of your health information at the door of any business still worries me because normally we don’t have a federal data privacy law in place,” said Alexis Hancock, EFF’s director of engineering. She pointed to software, unrelated to vaccines, that venues can use to scan driver’s licenses.

That threat can be mitigated, she said, if Congress or state legislators pass new consumer protections. A bill pending in the New York State Legislature would create new safeguards for medical immunity information.

But Hancock also said the smart health card has eased at least some of the EFF’s concerns about a digital vaccine record by making the computer code on the back of the card open-source, which allows others to inspect it. , and non-proprietary.

“Obviously, a lot has happened since last year,” she said.

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