With the new Omicron coronavirus variant spreading like wildfire, businesses like bars and restaurants are likely to require proof of vaccination before letting folks in through their doors (at least in the states where businesses are allowed to do so, like California and New York).
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID-19 vaccination cards are simple to read, their four-by-three inch size makes them awkward to carry around because standard wallets are 2.5-by-3.5 inches. Plus, the card’s simplicity makes it easy to counterfeit because it consists of regular black ink printed on plain card stock.
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A more convenient and safe way to carry around your vaccine card is through an app. Digitizing your vax card means pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and service industry businesses can instantly verify your records with a simple scan of the QR code (a matrix barcode) on your app, similar to scanning digital tickets to a concert or digital boarding passes when traveling by plane. Some users may find it unsettling to store personal health information on their smartphone, but it’s not any riskier than storing your credit card information in a digital wallet for online payments.
However, not every state or health provider offers a way to digitize your records, and there isn’t a federal standard, either. The most common way to digitize your vaccine card at the moment is with a SMART Health Card, which is a personalized QR code that verifies your vaccination history when scanned. In some states, you can access these QR codes directly through your health care provider’s app or digital portal. Allegheny Health Network, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shows users their QR code directly in their “MyChart” app, for instance. But in California, you must navigate to the state health department website to access your SMART Health Card.
The Commons Project Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in New York City that creates digital platforms for public services, developed SMART Health Cards. They are the most widely used version of digitized vaccine records in North America, says JP Pollak, co-founder and chief architect at The Commons Project Foundation. Canada and Japan have made SMART Health Cards their national standard for digital vaccination records, and around a dozen U.S. states (in addition to the eleven that already use SMART Health Cards) will be joining the club in the next two to three weeks, Pollak tells Popular Mechanics.
Already, 11 states and numerous pharmacies and health care providers—including Walmart, CVS, and Rite-Aid—offer access to your digital vaccine records by issuing SMART Health Cards. Pharmacies, doctor’s offices, state immunization registries, or any entity that has your health information on file can issue these digital cards. Once you request your card online, the office or agency will send you a link to verify your info and download the QR code that serves as your digital vaccine card. You can then store that QR code in your photo library or digital wallet, such as Apple Wallet, Samsung Pay, or Google Pay. You can also store your SMART Health Card in a specific vaccine card app like CLEAR Health Pass (several airlines use this for contactless travel), Common Pass, Excelsior Pass (New York only), MyIR Mobile, Docket, Bindle, or VaxYes.
While vaccine card apps are undoubtedly convenient, there’s always a risk that hackers can compromise your digital information. The Commons Project Foundation has taken a few steps to help mitigate this risk, Pollak says. For example, your QR code doesn’t act as a tracker. In other words, there’s no way someone could figure out where you’ve been or track any data on your phone just by scanning the QR code. The scan doesn’t transmit any personal information anywhere, Pollak says; it only verifies the data posted by the SMART Health Card issuer.
⚠️ The SMART Health Card also doesn’t require more information than what is on your paper card from the CDC. If a vaccine card app requests additional info, like your social security number or address, you should look for another option.
Although a digital vaccine card won’t reveal any data that isn’t already on your paper card, it’s best to be cautious about how you share that information, Pollak says. For example, be sure you trust the person or place of business that’s scanning your QR code to verify your status, and don’t leave your QR code open on your phone, tempting any scammers to snap a photo of it and use it fraudulently. The Commons Project Foundation recommends that businesses download the SMART Health Card Verifier App, which is a free, secure scanner for SMART Health Card QR codes.
Digital vaccine cards have a clear advantage over the paper cards from the CDC in terms of fraud prevention and verifiability, “but that really only holds up if businesses are actually scanning your QR code,” Pollak says. If restaurants and bars, for example, are just looking at the QR code and not scanning it, then people can get away with photoshopped QR codes that make it look like they have a digital vaccine card, Pollak says.
As more businesses take steps to curb COVID-19 exposure so that they can remain open, digital vaccine cards are likely to become commonplace. To download your SMART Health Card, visit your state health department’s website or call your healthcare provider for more information.
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