A growing number of states are implementing digital credentials known as vaccine passports, a project that the Biden administration signaled this spring that it would lead by issuing national standards.
The rise of the Delta variant and a surge in counterfeit vaccination cards has added urgency to an effort that could speed up the country’s reopening but has been a flashpoint for right-wing critics who see use of the credentials for certain activities as government overreach with potential privacy concerns. The Vaccination Credential Initiative, a consortium of health and technology companies led by Apple, Microsoft, and the Mayo Clinic, is deploying SMART Health Cards in California, New York, and Louisiana. According to people familiar with the effort, at least a half-dozen other states are considering adopting the credentials.
“It’s a sophisticated solution. It works well, and it’s open-source,” said Rick Klau, California’s chief technology innovation officer, adding that 3.7 million credentials have been downloaded in his state.
If enough states adopt the technology, it could become a de facto national standard, relieving the Biden administration of the burden of establishing federal requirements for domestic purposes. However, experts are concerned that a lack of federal safeguards will result in a confusing patchwork of unregulated and untrustworthy tools for verifying vaccination status, which will be further complicated by regions where they are prohibited. Conservative governors in states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Georgia have already issued executive orders prohibiting the use of passports.
“As people travel between states or even cities, different states, businesses, venues, and universities and colleges may use different platforms that are difficult to transfer information between,” said Lucia Mullen, senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
In the spring, the Biden administration stated that it would collaborate with private industry on national passport standards, while emphasizing that the government would not issue the credentials or store the data. Since then, federal officials have remained publicly silent on the subject, other than to speculate on how the digital certificates might enable international travel.
The transportation industry is urging the administration to act, citing a proliferation of fake vaccination cards available online, which could make it difficult to determine whether or not travelers have been vaccinated.
The standard CDC vaccination cards lack a scannable QR code, which could aid in the verification of their authenticity. There is also no national vaccination database, leaving businesses and others requiring proof of vaccination to rely on an honor system, according to Mullen, who added that the cards may have been hastily designed during a winter Covid surge to get vaccines into as many arms as possible.
Experts predict that as more workplaces and public venues require proof of vaccination, the market for fake cards will expand. The Federal Trade Commission and the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services have both reported an increase in fraudulent activity, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have reported mass seizures of counterfeit paper cards.
If there are outbreaks in places where documentation is required, public health officials say fake cards could undermine public trust in vaccines. “If someone has false documentation then uses that, you can be sure that the first rumor will be that that’s a breakthrough infection,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
Such arguments are increasing pressure on states and municipalities to respond with digital credentials, such as New York’s Excelsior Pass Plus, which is based on the SMART Health Cards framework. The pass, which shows vaccination status and test results, is used to gain access to indoor activities such as dining and entertainment. Similarly, the LA Wallet app provides verification through the Louisiana Department of Health.
The rapid spread of the Delta variant, as well as rising hospitalizations and deaths, is increasing pressure on undecided states to act, even in the absence of a national standard. Some pharmacies have their own digital copies of vaccination records, and companies like CLEAR and CommonPass are offering their own digital verification tools.