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.
The Biden administration won’t be providing digital vaccination certificates at the federal level. So it's up to individuals to create their own.
First comes the extreme jubilation of scoring a coveted COVID-19 vaccination appointment (for those who can get vaccinated). Then, some of the nerves start to settle in about a possible reaction to the doses (we’ve all heard the stories). Next, the inevitable selfies of getting the jabs or of the CDC-issued vaccination certificate (privacy-compromising details omitted, of course). And then, then, all that you have to show for what is hopefully the denouement of this emotional roller coaster of a pandemic is a 3- x 4-inch piece of paper indicating that you have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
That piece of paper is, for many people, pretty much all they will have to prove that they’re largely protected from carrying and spreading the dreaded coronavirus (it’s not technically all they have—more on that later). What if you lose it? What if you need it and don’t have it on hand? What in the heck should we be doing with this piece of veritable pandemic gold?
Whether or not one agrees with the concept, the list of countries, cruise lines, tour operators, and venues that are asking travelers and visitors to provide proof of vaccination is growing. And with each addition, that vaccination certificate gains more currency.
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—but it has also said the federal government won’t be the one to provide it.
“Americans, like people around the world, who are vaccinated will want to be able to demonstrate that vaccination in various forms,” Andy Slavitt, the White House senior advisor for COVID-19 response, said during a March 29 COVID-19 update.
The ability to demonstrate vaccination status is “going to hit all parts of society,” said Slavitt. “And so, naturally, the government is involved. But unlike other parts of the world, the government here is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport, nor a place to hold the data of citizens.”
This is a different approach than the “Digital Green Certificate” the European Commission has proposed issuing to all European Union residents who can prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, who have tested negative for the virus, or can prove they recovered from it. Israel has also already introduced a “Green Pass,” which is available to citizens who have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 and can be used to enter a variety of businesses and venues such as gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, hotels, stadiums, and theaters.
Here in the U.S., it’s up to individual citizens to create their own vaccine passport.
These are the steps you should take to protect and preserve the physical vaccine certificate, which is your tangible vaccine passport for the time being, and where things stand for when and how you will ultimately be able to digitize your vaccination status.
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.
In March, Staples and Office Depot both stated that they would laminate COVID-19 vaccination cards in-store for free. The Staples offer currently does not have an end date, and the Office Depot offer is valid through July 25, 2021.
While it’s a tempting proposition, and “certainly does help keep it a little more secure,” notes Shafir, COVID-19 vaccine cardholders should also consider the fact that at some point the vaccinated may need additional booster shots as the science and medical communities evaluate the continued effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
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If you prefer to get the card laminated and we end up needing additional booster shots, “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. (Remember in-person conferences?)
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.
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.
There are many reasons individuals may have for wanting a digital version of their COVID-19 vaccine certificate. A paper certificate can get lost and does not present some of the conveniences of having a digital version securely stored in our devices for easy access when needed for travel or entry into a venue.
For now, governments and travel companies that are accepting vaccinated travelers have said that the paper certificate will suffice. But who knows for how long that will be the case and whether the ability to counterfeit these paper certificates will become a large enough issue to make the paper version essentially obsolete.
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.”
But, as mentioned above, the U.S. government has said it will not be issuing such a digital vaccine passport to citizens. “We view this as something that the private sector is doing and will do,” said Slavitt during the White House briefing.
When it comes to “private sector” digital COVID passports, there are numerous vaccine passports in development, including the IBM Digital Health Pass, the CommonPass, and the International Air Transport Association’s IATA Travel Pass, among others.
Unfortunately, none of these is widely available yet.
CommonPass, for instance, which generated a lot of buzz in the fall when it began partnering on trial flights with carriers such as United Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways, is currently only available on certain routes with certain airlines.
Lufthansa recently announced that the technology is now available to passengers on all flights from Frankfurt to the United States. In March, JetBlue announced that travelers from Boston to Aruba can use CommonPass to streamline entry into Aruba, where officials can digitally verify their health status.
CommonPass is expected to be “more broadly available to passengers and those traveling across borders in the coming months,” JP Pollak, cofounder and the chief architect of the Commons Project, which created the CommonPass, told AFAR.
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One of the biggest challenges in this process is that a piecemeal approach—different app and tech developers partnering with different governments, airlines, and other travel businesses—means that there will inevitably be a lack of connectivity and inter-usability of any one given app or platform.
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.”
The bottom line, if you were hoping to score a digital vaccine passport ASAP, you will need to stockpile some patience. There are “a lot of really smart tech people” as Tan referred to them, working on solutions, but actually getting viable vaccine passports up and running is perhaps more complicated than many may have initially realized.
One U.S. state, however, has developed a digital vaccine certificate option for its residents: New York. The Excelsior Pass, which was launched by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on March 26 and developed in partnership with IBM, is currently the only larger-scale digital vaccine passport on offer.
“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 Department of Health’s Electronic Clinical Laboratory Reporting System (ECLRS), which gives Excelsior Pass users access to their testing results.
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.
While it’s a promising development, calling the Excelsior Pass a “vaccine passport” is a bit of a misnomer. The Excelsior Pass was created to be used in conjunction with New York venues, such as theaters, stadiums, and private event spaces, that must also download the tech so they can scan visitors upon entry.
It’s not as though you can head to the airport with the app to be scanned in upon check-in as a vaccinated traveler, or use it in a destination or on a cruise ship that has a COVID-19 vaccination requirement—not unless those entities were aligned with the same technology and QR coding being used for the Excelsior Pass.
Could the Excelsior Pass be adopted by other states? Here’s hoping. It’s “been built using open standards and architecture in order for other organizations to join the effort in the future,” IBM says. It’s a start, at least.
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