With COVID still a stubbornly deadly risk, many officials are not worrying too much about the flow of personal information. “Our sole focus is to reach herd immunity as soon as possible to stop the spread of COVID and save lives,” Brice Mitchell, a spokesman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said when asked about vaccination record-keeping and the use of patient data.
The focus on needles into arms has made the United States a world leader in COVID vaccinations. The pace has accelerated faster than anyone could have hoped for even a few months ago, says Tom Frieden, the former head of the CDC. “The vaccines are stunningly effective,” he said in an interview.
Medical researchers and officials at organizations such as the CDC do need access to significant amounts of COVID-related data to control the pandemic. Still, experts say it is worth considering how the private sector uses such information, because how we handle the crisis today may establish an important precedent.
“If we are making mistakes in the way we are doing things now, we are carrying forward risks in the future,” says JP Pollak, co-founder and chief architect of the nonprofit Commons Project, which develops apps to help people store their medical data and to document their COVID vaccination status. Among the companies that have begun to use its CommonPass are JetBlue and Lufthansa on some flights. Walmart will offer it as a way for consumers to access their records if they receive a COVID-19 vaccination at a Walmart location.
“The part that feels new to these circumstances, that people should take note of, is the requirement to create accounts and submit extensive personal information in the process of trying to get a vaccination appointment,’” Pollak continues. “Given the demand for appointments, people might need to do this at 5 to 10 different pharmacies or other businesses.”
One possible benefit that could emerge from the pandemic would be a system that allows patients easier access to comprehensive vaccination records. “I think it is a fantastic opportunity for the government to create a vaccine record app for the overall population—one that can keep track of a person’s entire vaccine history, linked to state registries,” says Sean Nolan, the former chief architect of Microsoft Health Solution Group.
Decades ago, U.S. states and some cities started compiling vaccination records of children. These records expanded to teens and then adults, according to Rebecca Coyle, executive director of the American Immunization Registry Association.
Yet even today there is no national vaccine database, which means anyone who moves between different states or receives immunizations in more than one state may have more difficulty finding their information. Forty states have signed agreements as of mid-April to share data, Coyle says. “It has taken a lot of time to get attention to this issue,” she says.
New Hampshire has been the last U.S. state to implement an immunization registry, and so far has recorded only COVID vaccines, according to Elizabeth Daly, chief of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control at the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
A digital system could also stem forgeries of vaccination certificates which have reportedly become increasingly common in recent weeks on various Internet sites and forums.
If the idea of a national COVID vaccine database to replace the paper cards is simple, creating it is challenging—and controversial.
“By the time this got created, infrastructure put in place, software installed, people trained to use it, support team trained to answer questions—most of the vaccinations will already have been given to those who want them,” says Judith Faulkner, the billionaire founder and CEO of Epic, which operates one of the largest U.S. health records systems with 250 million patients worldwide.