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Americans need a better vaccination ID than a flimsy piece of paper

We don’t want another Big Brother system of surveillance but we do need records that can’t easily be tinkered with.

A nurse from AltaMed Health Services hands out the vaccine card to people after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
A nurse from AltaMed Health Services hands out the vaccine card to people after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The United States needs a better vaccination ID.

Unlike many other countries with electronic systems, the Centers for Disease Control issues flimsy paper IDs as proof individuals have been vaccinated. The IDs are easily forged, don’t fit in a wallet and are vulnerable to wear and tear.

Ensuring people are vaccinated is an important part of trying to reduce the rate of COVID-19 infections. Many businesses, schools and government agencies now require proof of vaccination.

Chicago Public Schools teachers, staff and vendors must be vaccinated by Oct. 15 unless they have a medical or religious exemption. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that at least 675 colleges and universities require proof of inoculations. Federal workers must be vaccinated or get regular testing. Google, Facebook, Disney, Netflix, Cisco, Frontier Airlines, Walmart, Walt Disney Co., Microsoft and Tyson Foods are among the companies that now mandate vaccinations. Businesses are offering discounts and freebies to fully vaccinated people.

In short, it’s no surprise, if a bit pathetic, that there’s a growing market for counterfeit vaccine IDs among people who shun vaccinations.

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors accused a Chicago pharmacist of selling more than 100 blank COVID-19 vaccination cards. Stacks of phony vaccination cards, complete with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logo, have been shipped to places around the U.S. from China. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents recently seized thousands of fake vaccination cards passing through Memphis.

An online cottage industry providing phony vaccine IDs has sprung up catering to unvaccinated people who don’t want to be barred from their favorite haunts. The penalty of a possible fine and a maximum of five years in prison clearly is not enough of a deterrent.

As it stands, enforcing vaccine requirements is not easy. When Lollapalooza, for example, required attendees to show their vaccination cards, ID checkers didn’t have a way to verify if the cards were genuine.

It’s time to create a reliable vaccine ID that schools, organizations, businesses and government can rely on. Turks and Caicos, a major vacation destination, has announced it will require digital proof of vaccination. Your paper CDC vaccine identification won’t get you there.

Other types of vaccine IDs already are popping up here and there. Walgreens and CVS provide vaccine e-cards. Walmart links vaccination records to the Commons Project’s CommonPass vaccine passport. This fall, the University of Illinois will require students and staff to upload their vaccination cards to a portal that can be checked against public health records.

But that’s a patchwork system that’s not a reliable stand-in for a dependable universal vaccine ID that everyone recognizes. We don’t want another Big Brother system of surveillance but we do need records that can’t easily be tinkered with.

Other nations are doing better. The European Union is now issuing verified Digital COVID Certificates with a digital version that can be stored on a mobile device. Both the paper and digital versions have QR codes with essential information and a digital signature to ensure certificates are authentic. In the Philippines, the Quezon City government on Friday began distributing vaccination cards with tamper-proof hologram seals.

Other states have moved ahead of Illinois. New York has an app that provides a QR code when a person’s uploaded vaccine information is confirmed with city or state records. States with some type of online vaccine records include Arizona, California, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington State.

But for a truly dependable, reliable system we need a national system of vaccination records that is easy to carry around and is resistant to all types of forgery. That might make a free vaccination and legitimate ID card more attractive to some people than counterfeiting their own ID.

A growing number of places that require people to be vaccinated may help push up vaccination rates. Being barred from a favorite bar, gym or concert hall could persuade more people to get vaccinated. But if the more unethical folks among us find they can easily beat the system through counterfeit IDs and the like, that hopeful progress won’t be realized.

That would be beyond discouraging for anyone who hopes to return to a life without masks, social distancing and fear of an often deadly disease.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.