In preparing to welcome patrons back last Friday night for the first production in 18 months, Huntington Theatre officials set up vaccination verification checkpoints at two entrances. They repurposed bartenders to help verify each attendee’s vaccination status, and trained employees on how to spot a fraudulent vaccine card, right down to inspecting the number of digits in a dose’s lot number.
And yet, Nick Robinette, the Huntington’s house manager for Calderwood Pavilion, knew that if an unvaccinated guest wanted to get through the doors badly enough, there probably wasn’t much that could be done to stop them.
“The fact is,” said Robinette, as guests arrived for an evening production of “Hurricane Diane,” “the cards themselves — by nature of what they are — are very easy to replicate.”
As the Delta variant’s spread shows few signs of abating, the ability to resume normal activities — from eating at a restaurant to attending college to, in some cases, going to work — increasingly hinges on being able to prove you’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
But in Massachusetts, at least, the proof is a flimsy, handwritten paper card that can be easily duplicated, faked, or shared. That has left some businesses and institutions struggling to set up reliable verification systems that can protect vaccinated people when they congregate in numbers.
New York uses a mobile app called the Excelsior Pass that provides official verification of a person’s vaccine status by comparing it with city or state records. But Massachusetts has so far forgone a similar statewide vaccine passport.
Massachusetts officials contend the state’s high vaccination rate — as of this week, roughly three-quarters of adult residents had been fully vaccinated — differentiates it from the rest of the country, though COVID is spreading more quickly here now than before. A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health said last week that there are no plans to pursue a vaccine passport.
That leaves businesses on their own when it comes to vaccination verification, navigating what amounts to little more than a glorified honor system.
“I would like to assume the best in people,” said Tracy Chang, the chef-owner of PAGU in Cambridge, one of the Boston-area restaurants that are now requiring proof of vaccination for entry. But, “to be honest, without a centralized system, we just take people’s word that they’re not showing us counterfeits.”
Both Chang and officials at the Huntington Theatre Company said they have no indication that people are presenting fake passes or trying to cheat the ad hoc verification system. Everyone, it seems, is trying to do their best. “We trust our audience to be honest,” said Temple Gill, a spokeswoman for the Huntington who said the vaccination requirement has been welcomed by patrons.
Still, the FBI has warned of fake cards advertised on social media and e-commerce websites, as well as blogs. And authorities across the country have cracked down in a handful of cases.
In May, a California bar owner was arrested and charged with identity theft, forging government documents, and falsifying medical records after allegedly selling fake vaccination cards for $20 to undercover state agents.
Two travelers, meanwhile, were fined nearly $16,000 each this summer after they reportedly used fake vaccination cards and falsified COVID-19 tests to fly from the United States to Canada, where unvaccinated passengers are subject to stringent testing and quarantine protocols. And a California-based homeopathic doctor was charged recently with selling blank vaccination cards and allegedly instructing patients to fill them in with false information.
The reliance upon the CDC-produced vaccine cards, which feature no photo or ID number, represents a far cry from other forms of personal identification, from travel passports to the hologram driver’s licenses that bar bouncers inspect by the thousands to verify age.
“In every field there are attempts at making falsified documents and counterfeiting everything you can think of. There’s no reason to think that this would be different,” said Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner who now works as a security consultant. “It’s a little unwieldy to just have a photograph of your vaccine card on your phone. A lot of venues are relying on that — the problem is, it could be phony.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey said the office has referred multiple complaints to the FBI, primarily over concerns that fraudulent vaccine cards were being sold on public forums. In April, Healey was among the 42 state attorneys general to sign a letter requesting Twitter, eBay and Shopify monitor and remove posts offering blank or fraudulent vaccination cards.
A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston office said the agency doesn’t confirm or deny ongoing investigations, but said she was unaware of a single case locally in which someone was charged for selling or using fraudulent cards.
For their part, larger businesses and institutions seem to be faring better in verifying vaccination status.
At Mass General Brigham, which requires all of its nearly 80,000 employees to be vaccinated unless exempted for medical or religious reasons, workers vaccinated outside the hospital system are required to use an online portal to upload a photo of their vaccination cards — similar to the system employees have long used to verify flu shots.
A Boston College spokesman said the school’s health services staff personally reviews every COVID-19 vaccination card that is uploaded online for verification, “so we are not overly concerned about the possibility of fraudulent submissions.” A spokesman for Tufts University added that school officials review every submission and that the university had not found any attempts to submit fraudulent documentation.
Some argue, meanwhile, that the simple existence of a vaccine mandate to enter a venue is enough to quell the concerns of patrons.
Richard Bouchard, a local concert promoter, said he knew of a number of people who cheered when The Sinclair nightclub in Cambridge announced last month that it would requiring proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test for entry.
“You’ve seen those stories — people are getting caught with fake cards, selling fake cards,” said Bouchard. “The effort it takes to do that is so stupid compared with getting the shot, so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
In the absence of a centralized system, Adam Levine, a professor of emergency medicine and health services, policy, and practice at Brown University, said he is a staunch supporter of businesses implementing their own vaccination requirements.
Even if those checks fail to stop a small number of unvaccinated people, say 5 percent, that still means 95 percent of patrons in a given venue are vaccinated.
“We shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” Levine said. “If people know that every time they go into a grocery store or a theater or a baseball or football game they’re going to have to produce a vaccination card, they’re going to want to get vaccinated just so they don’t have to figure out a way to cheat the system every single time.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.