uc san diego

QR Codes, Vaccine Passports: Ways to Track Vaccination Status Considered But Hotly Debated

UC San Diego is part of the Vaccination Credential Initiative, which is helping develop a system that aims to produce trustworthy and verifiable copies of COVID-19 vaccination records in digital or paper form

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As cities across the U.S. take steps towards a "new normal" way of life following a global pandemic, your vaccination status could carry more weight beyond personal protection from COVID-19.

Vaccination requirements by California employers, colleges, and even sporting and concert venues are growing, intensifying calls for a universal system to track an individual’s inoculation.

Staff at UC San Diego are part of the Vaccination Credential Initiative -- a group that describes its task as developing a system that aims to produce trustworthy and verifiable copies of COVID-19 vaccination records in digital or paper form.

But some elected officials believe any system designed to verify vaccination records would be unconstitutional, and an invasion of a person’s medical privacy.

A person's vaccine credential could be as simple as a QR code on their phone, says the Vaccine
Credential Initiative.

California health officials have said they have no plans to require COVID-19 “vaccine passports.” The Biden White House said earlier this month it would not be “supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.”

“As these tools are being considered by the private and nonprofit sectors, our interest is very simple from the federal government, which is Americans’ privacy and rights should be protected… so that these systems are not used against people unfairly,” said Press Secretary Jen Psaki.  

That hasn’t stopped the development of digital or paper passes that would allow vaccinated residents or those who’ve tested negative into concerts and sports arenas.

For example, if you are a baseball fan and show proof you are vaccinated against COVID-19, you can sit in a special section at San Diego’s Petco Park. 

Spectators cheering on the Padres or Dodgers at Petco Park last week who showed proof they were vaccinated or had a negative COVID test could sit in a section capped at 67% capacity.  That's versus 33% capacity for the rest of the stadium. 

As vaccination requirements continue to grow across the state, researchers are focused on what a credential may look like, and how this information could be tracked. 

Chris Longhurst is the Associate Chief Medical Officer for quality and safety at UC San Diego Health.  

“What we would like to do is offer the patients, who we have vaccinated, a way to validate or to verify their vaccination,” Longhurst explained.“You know we've provided everyone with a paper card but there's an interest in having that in other forms as well. We don't want to see technology companies seeing this as an opportunity to build revenue on the back of our taxpayers, so we would like to see open-based standards that can be adopted by a number of different apps.”

Chris Longhurst with UCSD Health

Longhurst said UCSD has been involved in the Vaccine Credential Initiative or VCI program for several months, along with companies like Oracle, the Mayo Health Clinic, IBM and Microsoft. 

A vaccine credential could be a simple step away on your phone, Longhurst said. 

“For example, if you fly today, you book that ticket online and you might print out the confirmation with your QR code and show it at the airport or you might show it on your smartphone,” Longhurst said. “If you have T.S.A or are a frequent flier, it often has that T.S.A checkpoint mark above it. You might imagine now, you will have a QR code on Ticketmaster or Stubhub for your Padres game that has a checkmark above it to show you are vaccine verified and therefore sit in a vaccinated section of the stands.”

Longhurst and the rest of the VCI group hope to have their digital and paper verification system in place by the beginning of summer 2021. 

But some people aren't as enthusiastic. 

Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have made their opposition to vaccine passports or verification systems clear.

California Governor Gavin Newsom hasn’t announced plans for a statewide COVID-19 vaccination documentation policy. But California Assemblyman Kevin Kiley has drafted a bill to ban such passes “as a condition of receiving any service or entering any place.” 

Kiley’s Assembly Bill 327 would block state agencies and governments from enacting digital health documentation policies and would block public and private entities from requiring proof of vaccination for customers.

Approving or denying a person access to certain events on its surface is “unconstitutional,” Kiley said.

“My bill, at the very least, is proposing that the government does not establish any sort of passport system like that and any institution that receives government funding doesn't as well,” Kiley told NBC7. 

Kiley’s proposed legislation will be considered by the state assembly’s health committee before moving forward. The assemblyman believes creating a verification system like this is a slippery slope. 

California Assemblyman Kevin Kiley

“Once the system is in place, it would be available for other purposes which is why I think it's important for us to take a stand now and say this isn't a road we are going to go down at all,” Kiley added. “Really, what it's going to do in many ways is just sort of extend this paradigm of control that we’ve had over the last year far into the indefinite future.”

According to several attorneys NBC has spoken with, from a legal standpoint, businesses can require proof of vaccination as a condition of working or receiving services. But, experts say that doesn't mean that there aren't legal exceptions and challenges, as well as privacy concerns. 

“If you’ve seen those signs that say ‘no shirt, no shoes, no business’ well that shows you private companies can choose their clientele,” adds Longhurst. “As long as they are not discriminating on the basis of race or sex or age or some other protected class, they can decide who their clients are and if private companies say they are only going to serve vaccinated individuals, they have the right to do that.”

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