California’s Patchwork Approach to ‘Vaccine Passports’

The state has adopted no official protocol, but that won’t stop institutions from schools to stadiums for asking to see proof of vaccines

COVID-19 vaccinations are reaching more California residents each day, and more than a quarter of the state’s adults are already considered fully vaccinated. And, as those numbers continue to climb, more gatherings, venues, and institutions should be able to welcome people safely back–but how will those who’ve received the shot be able to prove it? The federal government has declined to adopt a national vaccine passport protocol, leaving it largely up to individual stadiums, venues, or businesses to figure out if and how to request verification.

New York opted earlier this year to launch an official, statewide digital vaccine passport system, dubbed the Excelsior Pass. The pass, created by IBM, is free and voluntary for residents. It creates a code that local businesses can scan to see verification of vaccination or recent test results, functioning sort of like a mobile boarding pass for an airplane flight. Paper records are also still accepted.

For now, the California state government has said it is not working on a comparable program, though Dr. Mark Ghaly did tell CalMatters earlier this month that “officials will monitor private sector development of passports for privacy, equity, and fairness.” Individuals who were vaccinated at sites run by Los Angeles County automatically received a digital record of vaccination which can be added to a smartphone “wallet,” which offers a digital option for some, but it leaves out everyone vaccinated by other providers.

Critics of relying on a digital vaccine passport system note that, like everything on the internet, the system could be vulnerable to data breaches and fraud. Some note, too, that all the app solutions pre-suppose the user has a smartphone, which not everyone has. Paper vaccine records have their own downsides, including the ease of counterfeiting and the possibility of loss or theft.

Dodger Stadium announced a “vaccinated-only” section starting with this weekend’s game against the San Diego Padres. The section allows for a relaxation of distancing rules, with groups from mixed households allowed to sit immediately next to one another, and free to eat and drink in their seats without masks. To access the section, the stadium requires ticket buyers to attest that they are, in fact, fully vaccinated, and to present verification upon arrival. In lieu of a vaccine passport, the stadium will accept a government-issued photo ID plus either the original paper vaccination card or healthcare provider documentation, or a photo of that card, either printed or on a mobile device.

Los Angeles Football Club is also debuting a vaccinated supporters section at Banc of California Stadium starting on April 24. To enter, fans can bring the paper vaccination record card or documentation from a health care provider. Ticket purchasers will also have the option of registering with a digital system to provide a mobile proof of vaccination on game day.

Staples Center, too, will require proof of health status, which can be presented on paper or as a photograph. The arena currently has a partnership with CLEAR for expedited entry through security checks which pre-dates the pandemic, but might be a future option for vaccine verification as well. The CLEAR Health Pass system is currently being used by Oracle Park in San Francisco for verification of COVID test results, and the app will be rolling out a vaccine verification component in the near future.

More venues and companies may start offering online systems and apps of their own. Even before vaccinations became widespread, Ticketmaster announced plans to develop a health status system that could be used to clear fans to attend concerts and other events–but since that November announcement, little new information has emerged about how the system would function or what, if any, third-party tech vendor might be involved.

When it comes to traveling outside of California, different airlines and destinations are developing their own approaches as well. A number of international airlines are currently testing the IATA Travel Pass, and several bodies around the world are collaborating on a project known as CommonPass. Hawaii is developing what it calls the Safe Travels Pass, but the rollout has been delayed. The system is now expected to be available for travelers from the mainland around mid-June.

RELATED: Here’s What You Need to Know About When and How to Get a COVID Vaccination in L.A.

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