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Vaccine Passports Are Getting a Bit Easier to Obtain—Here’s How to Get One

By Michelle Baran

Aug 25, 2021

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If you’re a resident of New York State, the Excelsior Pass app lets you store your vaccination status to use with vendors that join the platform.

Courtesy of Excelsior Pass

If you’re a resident of New York State, the Excelsior Pass app lets you store your vaccination status to use with vendors that join the platform.

As more destinations and venues require proof of vaccination for entry, a growing number of options for obtaining a digital vaccine certificate are becoming available.

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This week, federal regulators granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, a move that is expected to result in more companies and government bodies requiring proof of vaccination from employees, guests, and visitors. But even before the Pfizer vaccine received full approval, a mounting number of destinations and venues had been requiring proof of vaccination from visitors and patrons, especially in light of the latest Delta variant–fueled surge of COVID cases.

For many people, the CDC-issued, 3- x 4-inch paper COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card is all they have to prove that they are fully vaccinated. But a paper certificate can get lost and does not present some of the conveniences of having a digital version (ideally with a corresponding scannable QR code) that is securely stored in our devices for easy access when needed for travel or entry into a theater, restaurant, or event space.

While the Biden administration has acknowledged that there’s mounting demand for some form of secure documentation that allows citizens to provide proof of their vaccination status—it has also said the federal government won’t be the one to provide it.

Unlike in Europe where governments are issuing a “Digital Green Certificate” to residents who can prove they have been vaccinated, who have tested negative for COVID-19, or have recovered from the virus, here in the United States it’s up to individual citizens to create their own vaccine passport.

Thankfully, there are a growing number of options for those who would like to digitize their vaccination status. Identity tech company Clear is fast becoming one of the most convenient ways to create a digital vaccine pass through the Health Pass option on the Clear app. This week, restaurant reservation service OpenTable partnered with Clear to offer diners an easy way to show proof of vaccination at a restaurant using Clear’s digital vaccine card, a program that kicks off in September (more on this below).

Delta Air Lines is also testing a new tool that would allow passengers to upload their vaccine credentials ahead of a flight to destinations such as Greece and Iceland that ask international arrivals for proof of vaccination. There are also other apps and tech platforms partnering with destinations, airlines, and events to offer digital vaccine passes.

More states, including New York, California, and Hawai‘i, are offering digital vaccine pass solutions to residents as well, and in the case of Hawai‘i, to visitors, too.

The paper certification format poses not only “an issue of fraud and people losing their piece of paper, but it’s also an issue of convenience. Because if you want to check into a flight or submit your status before you check in or as you check in, a piece of paper is not going to be useful,” Eric Piscini, global vice president of blockchain for IBM Watson Health, which is developing the IBM Digital Health Pass, recently told AFAR. “The need is here to have digitized credentials.”

Here are the options for those who want or need a digital vaccine passport.

U.S. states offering vaccine passports

San Francisco now has a vaccine mandate for indoor bars and restaurants.

New York

New York was the first U.S. state to develop a digital vaccine certificate option for its residents, the Excelsior Pass, which was launched on March 26 and developed in partnership with IBM.

“Excelsior Pass is a first-of-its-kind from a U.S. state—a free, voluntary, convenient, and secure method to share COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 test result status,” IBM said in a statement sent to AFAR.

New Yorkers can download the Excelsior Pass Wallet app for Android or for iOS. Those who want the pass can also start the process online, where users will be asked to submit their name, date of birth, and zip code in order to access their records.

The pass offers access to both vaccination status and testing results. Numerous labs have committed to reporting COVID test results to the state health department’s Electronic Clinical Laboratory Reporting System (ECLRS), which gives Excelsior Pass users access to their testing results.

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Users can also access the Excelsior Pass in multiple languages and can share the information via a smartphone wallet or by printing out the information and offering the printout to venues that have joined the program and require proof of a negative COVID-19 test or vaccination credential. IBM has incorporated blockchain and encryption technologies to protect user data and provides users with access to a QR code as proof of their vaccination or negative test result.

California

In June, California’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) introduced a new Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record for California residents, which they can access online by entering their name and date of birth, an email or mobile phone number, and by creating a four-digit PIN code—the digital tool pulls their record from the state’s immunization registry and provides a digital record of their vaccination status as well as a QR code that links to it.

“While CDPH recommends that vaccinated Californians keep their paper CDC card in a safe and secure place, we recognize that some people might prefer an electronic version,” Dr. Erica Pan, an epidemiologist for the state of California, said in a release about the digital option.

The new tool comes as San Francisco recently implemented a new vaccine requirement for indoor bars, restaurants, gyms, clubs, and large indoor events.

California’s Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record was developed by VCI.org, a coalition of private and public organizations working to provide verifiable electronic vaccine records, in conjunction with the Smart Health Card platform. The Smart Health Card QR codes are recognized by apps like Clear and CommonPass. Businesses that want to work with the system must connect to the Smart Health Card system so that they can scan users’ QR codes.

In addition to being convenient, the Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record can serve as a backup if California residents lose or misplace their paper card—users should take a screenshot of the information and save it to their smartphones for easy access and use.

Hawai‘i

Hawai‘i has a digital vaccine certificate program in place to help facilitate its Safe Travel program, which allows vaccinated domestic arrivals to bypass the state’s otherwise mandatory pretravel COVID-19 testing requirement. Vaccinated Hawai‘i-bound travelers as well as Hawai‘i residents traveling interisland can upload their vaccination certificate to Hawai‘i’s Safe Travels portal.

Hawai‘i also accepts digital vaccine certificates from Clear and CommonPass.

Apps and tech companies providing vaccine passports

Hawai‘i has partnered with Clear and CommonPass on vaccine passport programs.

Health Pass by Clear

To use Clear, just download the free Clear mobile app. The app’s Health Pass feature has a digital vaccine card option, which allows users to upload their vaccine certification information alongside a profile photo for additional verification. It’s easiest to do with an existing QR code such as those provided to residents of New York and California, but Clear is also synced up with numerous pharmacies and medical institutions that store patients’ COVID vaccine data electronically. Users can also upload a scan of their paper vaccine certificate. The resulting digital vaccine card includes both a QR code as well as the vaccination details—which shots were administered and when.

Clear has linked up with the Hawai‘i’s Safe Travels program, as mentioned above, as well as with numerous sporting and entertainment venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York; Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and live music venue the Independent in San Francisco; and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Starting in September, those making restaurant reservations through the OpenTable app in cities such as New York and San Francisco where vaccine passes have become mandatory for indoor drinking and dining will find a link to Clear on OpenTable. That will allow users to create a digital vaccine card with the Clear Health Pass, if they haven’t already, which can then be accessed for dining.

Bars and restaurants on the OpenTable platform can also now list “proof of vaccination” on their restaurant profile page to let diners know whether proof of vaccination is required.

CommonPass

The CommonPass app allows users to scan or import a Smart Health Card QR code for vaccination status (such as the one being used for California residents). It does not, however, accept uploads of CDC-issued vaccination cards.

Destinations and airlines that have partnered with CommonPass provide passengers and visitors with a six-digit invitation code that allows them to create a digital vaccine pass specifically for that flight, state, or country. (CommonPass is currently working with Hawai‘i and Aruba, for instance.)

Even without the code, users can create a general CommonPass digital vaccine pass that includes a QR code and digitally stored vaccination details.

Protecting your paper vaccination certificate

For those who can’t or don’t want to digitize their vaccine credentials, or for those who simply feel it’s prudent to safeguard the physical vaccine certificate in addition to having one (or several) digital versions, there are a few things you can do to better protect and preserve that CDC-issued card.

Take a picture (it’ll last longer)

As soon as you’re fully vaccinated and have the vaccination certificate to prove it, “the most important thing is number one to take a photo [of the certificate],” says Dr. Shira Shafir, associate professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, where she specializes in epidemiology and community health sciences.

Shafir advises saving that image to your storage cloud and wherever you store digital documents, whether that’s in your smartphone wallet, Google Docs, etcetera. For iOS users, the Notes app has a document scanner function you can use, which allows you to take a photo, resize it, and save it to any folder on your phone or send it to yourself.

To laminate, or not to laminate

While laminating the card “certainly does help keep it a little more secure,” notes Shafir, COVID-19 vaccine cardholders should also consider the fact that the vaccinated will likely need additional booster shots in the near future.

If you prefer to get the card laminated and we end up needing additional boosters, “it’s not a huge problem,” says Shafir, adding that you can always get a new card upon getting the booster.

Her solution for her yellow card—the International Certificate of Inoculation and Vaccination created by the World Health Organization that many international travelers already have to prove they have been vaccinated for yellow fever—is to keep it in a “flexible but durable plastic sleeve.”

In fact, you can purchase COVID-19 vaccine card protectors that are already designed to fit the 3- x 4-inch cards online. They look like something you get at a conference to put your name badge in and attach your lanyard to.

Store it in a safe place

Whether you decide to keep your vaccination certificate on your person or leave it at home, you should be thinking about it the same way you do all other important documents, including your passport, driver’s license, and birth certificate. Know where you are going to keep it so that you don’t misplace it, of course, and so that you can access it quickly and easily should the need arise.

What if you lose your COVID-19 vaccine certificate?

First off, do not panic (easier said than done, we know). If you had your vaccine administered by a larger pharmacy, such as Walgreens or CVS, a grocery chain, or a health network such as Kaiser or a medical facility, your vaccination status has been documented by that network and you likely have access to it via the online account you used to register for and receive your vaccine appointment.

If you got your vaccine at a pop-up location, such as a mass vaccination site, the entity through which you made the appointment should have a record of your vaccination status. In most cases, this is your county or state health department. It may not be an easy process, but this would be the place to track down your records and find out about how to get a replacement card.

What's next for digital vaccine passports?

In the United States, “we’ve got 57 immunization registries [between the] states, cities, and territories, and they all are independent . . . so an app has to be able to communicate with essentially 57 different registries,” said Litjen Tan, chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition, which works with the CDC to increase immunization rates.

“The other thing is that [a digital vaccine passport] needs to be able to go back and update itself,” noted Tan. “Because let’s say we find out that the duration of immunity is nine months. We now need to be able to tell people your certificate is no longer valid. Whatever application we use, that application needs to be able to stay up to date with things like expiration date. It’s challenging.”

Despite the numerous challenges, Tan said that if policymakers, tech companies, and entities such as the CDC and the WHO can work together toward applicable solutions both domestically and internationally, we could see greater progress on the digital vaccine passport issue in the coming months.

“It’s actually about how do we create a standard working IT language so that it’s not just the U.S., but if in the U.S. you have a certificate, if I want to go to the United Kingdom, that same certificate would be validated,” said Tan. “That’s why it’s complicated. With a global pandemic, you’ve got to think globally.”

This story was originally published on April 6, 2021, and has been updateed to include current information.

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