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As masking requirements ease, are vaccine passports going to be in demand?

Several states have developed smartphone-based systems for vaccinated folks to prove they’ve gotten their shots.

New York state's Excelsior Pass tracks vaccination records. A variety of digital and old-fashioned approaches are being used around the globe to confirm COVID-19 vaccination, but the world is still far from a universal standard of proof. News that people vaccinated against COVID-19 can take off their masks when indoors could be a shot in the arm for vaccine passports.
New York state's Excelsior Pass tracks vaccination records. A variety of digital and old-fashioned approaches are being used around the globe to confirm COVID-19 vaccination, but the world is still far from a universal standard of proof. News that people vaccinated against COVID-19 can take off their masks when indoors could be a shot in the arm for vaccine passports.New York State/NYT

News that people vaccinated against COVID-19 can take off their masks when indoors could be a shot in the arm for vaccine passports.

Thursday’s announcement from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention means that retailers and restaurants could let vaccinated customers inside without masks — but may first want to see proof of vaccination.

The paper cards from the CDC may be enough for some businesses. But several US states have introduced electronic versions that are secure and not vulnerable to forgery. These secure systems typically are either a smartphone app that confirms vaccination by displaying a QR code on the phone, or a website where a user can print the code on a piece of paper. Massachusetts health officials haven’t made a move yet, but vaccine passes are coming soon to the private sector, as well, including from Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens, the retail chains that have provided shots to thousands of state residents.

How do vaccine passports work?

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In the software version, a user installs a smartphone app and enters personal information, such as their name, address, and date of birth. This information is compared to a central database of people who’ve been vaccinated, or who have tested negative for the COVID-19 virus. If the person is listed in that database, the phone receives a unique QR code that appears on the phone’s screen. Any business that wants to check someone’s vaccination status can scan this QR code and get instant confirmation.

The systems are designed to show someone’s COVID-19 status, and nothing else. They don’t provide any other sensitive information. People who don’t own smartphones will be able to go to a website where they can confirm they’ve been vaccinated, and print out a paper version of the QR code. This can be shown along with a photo ID to prove their vaccination status.

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Where can I get one?

For most Massachusetts residents, their only proof of vaccination is the familiar CDC white paper card, filled out by hand and easy to forge.

Governor Charlie Baker threw cold water on the idea of vaccine passports in April. More recently, his health officials did not respond to repeated requests for more information.

It’s another story in other parts of the US. New York has the Excelsior Pass, codeveloped with IBM Corp. that was released in March as the first such pass issued by a US state. When sports venues and other entertainment facilities began reopening in New York, vaccinated fans were able to attend using Excelsior. The pass is good for 180 days after the last shot, and can be renewed.

Since then, Los Angeles County in California has teamed up with a local software maker called Healthvana to create its own proof-of-vaccination app.

Louisiana uses a system based on its digital drivers license, which comes in a smartphone app called the LA Wallet. A Louisiana resident who uses the digital wallet in place of a traditional plastic drivers license will see a new COVID-19 option. By tapping an icon, they can download their COVID vaccination record from the state’s health department, and display it on screen, along with the person’s photo.

“I think we have the simplest and most trustworthy way of presenting the COVID vaccination status.” said Calvin Fabre, president and founder of Envoc, the Baton Rouge software company that developed the state’s digital drivers license. And because 675,000 Louisiana residents already use LA Wallet, the state has a big head start in deploying the app.

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Vaccine apps are also coming from the private sector. The pharmacy chain Walgreens said it will introduce a “digital dose card” later this month. Anyone who was vaccinated at a Walgreens location will be able to display a certificate using a Walgreens smartphone app. Rival drugstore giant CVS is working on a similar app, according to a company spokesman. And Walmart has also announced plans for its own vaccine pass. This may be the best bet for Massachusetts residents who got vaccinated at one of these pharmacies.

Do I have to have a vaccine passport?

That depends.

Government agencies and businesses have balked at making such passports mandatory. Last month, President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said that the administration is “not now nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.” And some states have taken action to limit the use of vaccine passports. The governors of Florida, Texas, and Arizona have issued executive orders that forbid state agencies from requiring them. Florida went even further, passing a law that bans private businesses and local governments from demanding vaccine passports.

But outside of Florida, businesses have considerable latitude in requiring vaccination passports from employees and customers. People who can’t prove they’re vaccinated could be barred from entering a restaurant or from working there, or still be subject to a mask mandate and other restrictions. Or those without passes could be subject to different treatment. For instance, some Major League Baseball stadiums have established separate seating areas for the unvaccinated. The policy is intended to encourage fans to get their shots.

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Will my vaccine passport work anywhere?

Right now, there’s no guarantee that a pass issued in New York will be accepted in Philadelphia or Paris. But JP Pollak, cofounder and chief architect of The Commons Project, a nonprofit organization working to develop vaccine certificates, said that dozens of technology firms and health care organizations have signed on to the Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI), a consortium that’s developing a global technical standard for vaccine certificates. If the standard is adopted universally, a person’s digital vaccine pass should work anywhere, just like a Visa card.

But that won’t happen until governments worldwide settle on a vaccine passport strategy, and that could take quite a while. “This is going to be a long road,” said Pollak, “both technically and politically.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.