State-issued COVID-19 vaccine certificates may “soon” make their way to Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker said this week on GBH News’ Boston Public Radio. But Baker has no plans to use the certificates as mandatory “vaccine passports” that people would have to carry to work, travel, or shop.
The certificates would feature a QR code that could be scanned with a smartphone to confirm that an individual is fully inoculated against the coronavirus, Baker added, as he showed his code to hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Monday.
“This is my proof that I’ve been vaccinated. It’s easy to access, it’s a universal standard, and we’ve been working with a bunch of other states,” Baker said.
On Tuesday, Baker spokesman Terry MacCormack confirmed via e-mail that Massachusetts “has been exploring a voluntary vaccine credential system to help residents more easily access their vaccine records and has been in touch with other states to learn more about their similar efforts.” But MacCormack added that ”the Administration has no plans for a statewide vaccine requirement.”
Baker himself was even more emphatic at a Tuesday press conference.
“This isn’t about creating a mandate or a statewide initiative of any kind,” he said. “We just want to make sure people have the ability, if they’ve been vaccinated and want to have proof that they’ve been vaccinated, [to] easily download it onto a phone and use it whenever they need to.”
“The one thing everyone carries these days is their phone,” he added.
However, businesses, schools, churches, and other organizations are free to demand that visitors and employees offer proof of vaccination. A handful of bars and venues in Greater Boston — among them, The Middle East, Grendel’s Den, and The Plough and Stars, all in Cambridge — started requesting proof of vaccination as early as July. A digital vaccine certificate could be a handier and more durable alternative to the handwritten paper cards issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has repeatedly hinted that a proof of vaccination mandate could be imminent for high-risk indoor settings in Boston.
“The way to head off a shutdown is for everyone to get vaccinated and protected,” Wu said on GBH last week. “We’re looking at all of the options available.”
The Baker administration hasn’t provided technical details about its proposed certificates. But a system developed by the Vaccination Credential Initiative, a consortium of major tech and health care companies, is already in use in several states. It’s called the SMART Health Card, a national standard for digital vaccine certificates based on technology from Boston Children’s Hospital.
VCI’s SMART Health Card generates a QR code that can be displayed on a smartphone screen or printed onto a slip of paper. A scanner app can read the code, which displays the holder’s name and date of birth, as well as the date of the vaccination, where it was administered, and which vaccine was used.
JP Pollak, cofounder of The Commons Project, a global nonprofit that’s part of the VCI consortium, said that eight US states offer SMART Health Cards to their residents. Another six states are testing the system, as are the territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. Pollak said another dozen states will announce their participation over the next few weeks but declined to say whether Massachusetts will be one of them.
In addition, the nation’s major pharmacy chains and many health care companies offer vaccine certificates. For instance, anyone in Massachusetts who received a vaccination through CVS, Walgreens, or Walmart can get a smartphone app that shows vaccination status by displaying a QR code.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts supported Baker’s plan in a statement but urged caution.
“Massachusetts leaders must take steps to ensure that privacy protections are in place before adopting any vaccine verification system,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This includes steps to prevent vaccine verification technology from enabling the tracking and cataloging of people’s movements and activities, and to prohibit private companies from collecting and selling our personal data.”
Baker first waded into the national debate about vaccine passports last April when he denounced the system, describing it as an obstacle to the statewide effort to vaccinate residents.
“I want to vaccinate people,” Baker said at the time. “Let’s get people vaccinated. I think having a conversation about creating a barrier before people have even had an opportunity to be eligible to be vaccinated — let’s focus on getting people vaccinated.”
Massachusetts is among the most vaccinated states in the nation, with 82.6 percent of residents having received at least one dose by Nov. 29, according to the CDC.