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Need to prove your vaccination status, but worried about losing your paper card? A digital option could soon be widely available

Juan Enrique received his COVID-19 vaccine card at the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center vaccine site at Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Dorchester Thursday afternoon.
Juan Enrique received his COVID-19 vaccine card at the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center vaccine site at Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Dorchester Thursday afternoon.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

As a growing number of businesses demand proof of vaccination from customers or employees, a card that shows you’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 may soon be as vital as a driver’s license. But the paper cards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are fragile and easy to forge.

The Vaccination Credential Initiative (VCI), a consortium of major tech and health care companies including Microsoft, Salesforce, Oracle, Bedford-based research company MITRE and the Mayo Clinic, says it’s come up with a more durable way to show genuine proof of vaccination. It’s the SMART Health Card, a national standard for digital vaccine certificates based on technology from Boston Children’s Hospital. The standard was recently finalized, and is now rolling out across the United States.

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“We’ve gotten most of the big health care technology vendors in the country,” said JP Pollak, cofounder of The Commons Project, a global nonprofit that’s part of the VCI consortium. “We’ve got most of the big pharmacy chains, all of the key health systems. Several states have agreed to adopt this particular standard.”

Massachusetts isn’t one of them, at least not yet. And the state’s Department of Public Health has not responded to repeated queries about whether it will provide a way for residents to prove they’ve been vaccinated.

But vaccinated people in Massachusetts may still be able to use the SMART card, if they got their shots from CVS, Walgreens, or Walmart, as those chains are or will be participating.

Meanwhile, people who were vaccinated at state-run sites may be able to get electronic proof of vaccination from their health care providers. All vaccinations in Massachusetts are recorded in a Department of Public Health database that health care companies can access to update patients’ vaccination records.

For example, patients of Atrius Health who were vaccinated at state-run sites can find proof of vaccination by logging on to the Atrius website. However, Atrius does not yet issue SMART Health Cards, so it just displays a text confirmation, not the more secure encrypted QR code. A spokesman for Atrius said the company may implement the technology at some point, but has made no decision.

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06passports - The SMART Health Card provides a secure digital way of proving you've been vaccinated against COVID-19. (The Commons Project)
06passports - The SMART Health Card provides a secure digital way of proving you've been vaccinated against COVID-19. (The Commons Project)The Commons Project

Other states, though, have already embraced the SMART system, including New York, California, and Louisiana. Pollak said other states that he could not name are on the verge of joining, and he expects SMART Health Cards to be available to about 100 million US residents in about a month.

The SMART system features a QR code that can be displayed on the screen of a smartphone, or printed on a piece of paper. The code can be read by any smartphone or computer with the correct software. It reveals the person’s name and date of birth, as well as the date of the vaccination, where it was administered, and which vaccine was used. It displays no other medical information. The code is also digitally signed to ensure it was issued by a legitimate institution, such as a state public health department or a pharmacy. This virtually eliminates the risk of forgery.

To prove vaccination, users display the SMART Health Card along with a separate ID, such as a driver’s license or passport to verify identity.

For now, businesses that demand proof of vaccination will rely on the old-school paper cards. That’s partly because few people have SMART Health Cards yet. In addition, businesses that want to see the proof of vaccination must be set up to scan the QR codes. But this is easy; any smartphone can do it, and the Commons Project has created a free app that scans the codes to confirm they’re legitimate.

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The SMART system doesn’t solve every proof-of-vaccination issue. For instance, there’s still no global standard. The European Union is developing its own version, as are India, China, and even Singapore. Pollak said the consortium is working to ensure that the various systems, including SMART, will be usable worldwide.

And the rollout of SMART Health Cards doesn’t resolve the controversy over whether people should be required to use them in order to work, attend school, or eat in a restaurant. The Baker administration has ordered that all Massachusetts nursing home workers must be vaccinated. California and New York are requiring all state workers to prove vaccination or get tested every week; the same applies to municipal workers in New York. Hundreds of colleges and universities are mandating the vaccine, as are many employers, including Facebook, Google, and Netflix.

Many other institutions have shied away from compulsory vaccinations. But if the idea continues to take hold, the SMART Health Card system will make such mandates far easier to enforce.


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