5 Things You Need to Know About California’s Vaccine Passport

Thomas Smith

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Earlier this month, the state of California became one of the first states in America to launch a digital Covid-19 vaccine verification system, or what’s often known colloquially as a “vaccine passport”.

Some citizens jumped at the chance to sign up for the new system, while others were more leery. In the comments section of an article I wrote about the system, readers expressed concerns about its implications for privacy, and concerns about whether the system would ultimately become mandatory.

Here are five things you need to know about the new California digital Covid-19 vaccine verification system.

It’s Optional

Now that a Covid-19 vaccine verification system exists in California, does everyone have to use it? No. An FAQ on the system’s website makes it clear that “The State will not be implementing a mandatory passport system in California.”

The state appears to see the digital record as similar to paper vaccine record cards. The same FAQ says that the digital record is “an optional means to obtain your COVID-19 vaccine information, and is the digital version of your paper vaccine card.”

If you’d prefer to use your paper vaccine card, then it appears you’ll have no objection from the state.

It’s Not Technically a Passport

According to reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle, the state is very leery of calling the new digital record a “passport.” This is likely due to often bitterly partisan divides around the term. The Chronicle quotes California governor Gavin Newsom in saying:

“It’s not a passport, it’s not a requirement, it’s just the ability now to have an electronic version of that paper version”

It appears that the state is defining a “vaccine passport” as a mandatory credential. The new Covid-19 vaccine record isn’t mandatory, so the state considers it something else — although exactly what that “something” might be isn’t exactly clear.

For all intents and purposes, though, the new digital record meets the popular definition of a vaccine passport. The credential is issued by the state, connected to a state database, and is intended to be shown in order to gain access to otherwise restricted spaces based on a person’s Covid-19 vaccine status. To many Californians, it’s indeed a passport — albeit an optional one.

Depending on Where You Got the Shot, It Might Not Work Right Away

While many Californians flocked to the state’s website to download their vaccine record when the system went live, some found doing so difficult or impossible. In order to access your own record, the provider who gave you the shot needs to have entered your vaccine information and your contact info (an email or phone number) into the state’s database.

According to the Chronicle, about 90% of records have contact information associated with them. For those that don’t, there’s a process to access the digital record, but it requires more manual work — uploading an ID, calling a help center, and the like.

If you got your shot through the state (at a county mass vaccination center, for example), then it’s likely your record will be present and easy to access. If you got the shot through your own provider, a pharmacy, or another venue, it may be harder. The system’s FAQ page contains resources for those who run into issues.

It’s Essential to Keep Your QR Code Safe

Once you access your digital Covid-19 vaccine record, you’ll be sent a QR code with some accompanying text. You might feel tempted to share the code on social media, to show others that you’re vaccinated or to encourage them to download their own record.

Don’t. Your QR code looks like a meaningless series of little black and white dots, but it actually contains sensitive health information, including your date of birth and the lot number of the vaccine you received. Treat your QR code like you would any other health record — keep it secure, and don’t share it publicly.

Remember that if you do choose to post your code, you risk invalidating HIPAA protections for your vaccine status, and could expose yourself to hacking attempts. Keep that QR code safe.

Your Record May Be Used for Dining Out, Attending a Concert, or Traveling

If you choose to download your own record, what can you do with it? According to the New York Times, California officials expect that the records will ultimately be used by “entertainment and sports venues”, as well as other businesses which need to verify a person’s vaccine status.

The Times, quoting state epidemiologist Erica Pan, also says that “one of the most common instances in which Californians may want to quickly and officially show they’ve gotten vaccinated is when they’re traveling — particularly abroad.”

Some countries require proof of vaccination in order for people to enter their borders, and the state expects that its digital record will fulfill that purpose. In that sense — although the record may not be considered a passport at home — it certainly appears positioned to serve as a passport for those who choose to leave the country, and as a means to officially verify their status abroad.

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Award-winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips: tom@gadoimages.com

Lafayette, CA
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