California digital COVID-19 vaccine card launches (but don't call it a vaccine passport)

California is the first US state to launch a digital COVID-19 vaccine record, a system tracking coronavirus healthcare that's likely to be as controversial as it is useful. The system, which went live today, allows residents of California to prove their vaccine status without having to carry around a physical card.

It comes as nearly 20 million people in California have been vaccinated against COVID-19, with over 41 million doses already administered according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those immunizations are recorded within the database operated by the state.

It's that database which the new digital COVID-19 vaccine record portal queries. A user can enter their name, date of birth, and either an email or cellphone number associated with their vaccine record to register with the system. After creating a four-digit PIN, they'll receive a text or email with a login link. Punching in that PIN will unlock the digital version of the record.

This isn't, it's worth noting, an expansion of the information about vaccinated people which California has been gathering. Indeed it's really just an electronic version of the physical card which people are given as they receive each dose, and which shows when they were injected, with which particular vaccine, and the dose.

Nonetheless it's likely to be another element in the ongoing controversy around vaccine records, which has stoked frustration in some quarters among those upset at the idea of a database of health records. The rules around just what data can be gathered, stored, and shared – and even requested by stores, entertainment venues, and employers – is a source of continuing confusion.

This new California portal is unlikely to address that confusion, even as it makes it easier to disclose vaccination status. The system uses the SMART Health Cards QR code technology, producing a barcode which can be saved and then later scanned by a venue that has the appropriate equipment and technology.

Still, California is making it clear that this is not a so-called vaccine passport. That's been one of the fears among those concerned by potential government overstep around vaccinations: that individuals would be required legally to carry some sort of proof that they had been immunized.

"You are not required to obtain a digital COVID-19 vaccine record," California points out. "It is an optional means to obtain your COVID-19 vaccine information, and is the digital version of your paper vaccine card. It is one of the options to show proof of vaccination. The State will not be implementing a mandatory passport system in California."

Reopening protocols have been a source of uncertainty in recent months, as advice from the CDC and other agencies evolves to take into account the changing awareness of COVID-19 and the rise in vaccinations. The latest guidance is that those who are fully vaccinated are safe to be inside, unmasked, with other people who are fully vaccinated, but that those not yet vaccinated should continue to wear masks. However it's based on an honor-system, with immunization status down to individuals to disclose.