COVID: What will California’s vaccine verification system look like

California businesses will be able to require vaccine verification

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Emily Deruy & Solomon Moore, June 18, 2021
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Newsom outlined the state’s ongoing support for restaurants and bars as California fully reopens the economy this month. (Jane Tyska — Bay Area News Group)
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Newsom outlined the state’s ongoing support for restaurants and bars as California fully reopens the economy this month. (Jane Tyska — Bay Area News Group)

Don’t call it a “vaccine passport,” Gov. Gavin Newsom insists. But California is poised to roll out some sort of electronic vaccine verification system to help residents show businesses and others that they are inoculated against the coronavirus.

Promising more details in the coming days, Newsom earlier this week touted that the state is working on a digital version of the official paper immunization cards that people received when they got their shots. How the system will work, who will have access to it, and when it will launch are among the critical questions that the governor’s office did not respond to Wednesday.

But the growing anticipation comes as dozens of competing efforts for everything from personalized apps to unique registries are stirring up confusion and privacy concerns as California sheds its pandemic restrictions and fully reopens this week.

While details remain scarce about how the state’s vaccine verification system will fit in, a couple of things are clear.

For one, people won’t be required to use the system, Newsom said. But if you want to, say, attend a concert or book a flight, businesses will be able to require verification in the same way they can continue to require masks even though the state, with a few exceptions, no longer mandates them.

“Businesses have freedom of choice across the spectrum,” Newsom said Monday.

California would not be the first to unveil a statewide verification system. In March, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the Excelsior Pass, a digital pass developed with the help of IBM that lets residents share their vaccination status or COVID-19 test results. Businesses can verify the information but don’t have access to personal health data.

Advocates of vaccine passports and verification systems say they can help residents and businesses get back to normal safely. They could ease access to concerts, baseball games, university campuses and other places where vaccination status matters.

“I think it makes sense on every level,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, who has been consulting with businesses.

“They would very much like to use a vaccine passport, but they don’t want to make the decision to do it,” Swartzberg said, acknowledging that the issue “is a political hot potato for them.”

Opponents of vaccine passports and verification systems have raised privacy and discrimination concerns. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order banning the use of vaccine passports, and Texas has also banned state agencies and organizations that receive public money from requiring people to prove they’ve been jabbed.

The federal government has said it will not create a nationwide system or passport, leaving states, local governments and the private sector to choose whether to tackle vaccine verification, with a number of options emerging.

ID2020, a San Francisco-based collaborative of international civil society organizations and multinational travel, financial and technology companies, has been seeking to link digital identities with vaccine distribution since its founding in September 2019, before the coronavirus hit. Earlier this month, the group published a white paper called the Good Health Pass Interoperability Blueprint that is intended to standardize the cacophony of vaccine credentialing systems being built across the planet.

The collaborative, whose supporters include Microsoft, IBM, Salesforce, the Rockefeller Foundation, Deloitte and others, are advocating for systems that are digital, interoperable across platforms and jurisdictions, and secure. Other principles at the core of the effort include a commitment to making health passes consensual and flexible enough to accommodate a range of solutions, including mobile and secure physical documentation of vaccinations.

“We’ve seen more than 70 systems that have been proposed, globally,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of World Privacy Forum, an Oregon-based research organization. “I don’t know which system will win, but I do think that the International Air Transport Association system — which is the system that airlines are going to use — may win.”

But Dixon said she is concerned that the speed with which vaccine credential systems are being developed has precluded any transparent process for public involvement in their designs. Dixon also said she is concerned that any digital platforms for vaccine credentialing would put individuals’ privacy at risk because identities will be linked to health data or behaviors that could be exploited by unscrupulous companies and governments.

It’s unclear exactly which verification systems will be put to use where. But for now, in the current absence of a California-wide system, some residents have been showing their physical vaccination cards, photos of the cards or vaccine records on apps such as the CVS Pharmacy app to enter places such as the fully vaccinated sections at San Francisco Giants games at Oracle Park, nursing homes for visits and more. The cards are easy to damage or lose, though, and proponents of a vaccine verification system say the current situation needs to be improved.

“I think it’s unfortunate we don’t have more political leadership doing this,” Swartzberg said. “Ideally it’s an activity the state should take on.”