By Dan Moren
November 3, 2021 12:28 PM PT
The trials and travails of iOS 15’s digital vaccine cards
Note: This story has not been updated since 2021.
Apple’s added a few features over the last couple years that help us cope with our current world situation, whether it be unlocking our iPhones with our Apple Watches or improvements to FaceTime. In iOS 15.1 last month, it rolled out the ability to store a digital version of your vaccine record in the Wallet app.
With more and more places requiring proof of vaccination, it seems like digital vaccine records would be the way to go—way better than trying to cram that huge card into your wallet. So I decided to give it a whirl.
But if there’s been any constant in my interactions with health and technology (especially over the last year and a half), it’s that things are always more complex than it seems like they should be—especially here in the U.S., where healthcare is a fractured mess of public and private concerns.1
Such it was with vaccine cards. Apple’s system uses the SMART Health Cards specification that’s supported by a wide variety of governments, pharmacies, and healthcare providers; its goal is to create digital health records that can be easily verified.
The good news was that the healthcare network I use is a SMART Card Issuer, meaning that I ought to be able to go to my online patient portal and download the information I needed to import my vaccine records.
But not so fast: Even though I’m a patient of that network, it’s really an amalgam of a variety of different healthcare institutions (thanks to a variety of mergers, partnerships, and expansions), and many of those institutions have their own distinct online systems. After some digging around, I found that the place at which I got my vaccine had its own portal, which I don’t have access to because I’m not a regular patient at that location.2
So, in the end, I had to fill out a general-purpose PDF form authorizing that facility to release my medical records…to me. To their credit, they did reply quickly via email, providing me with a QR code that I could scan to add the vaccine record to iPhone and voilà: my digital vaccine card, complete with QR code. Tapping the tiny icon in the bottom left corner of the card opens the Health app and shows more detailed information, like which vaccine I received, and when and where the doses were administered; there’s even a nice green checkmark and a little explanation of what a verified record is.
This does, however, raise a second obstacle: uncertainty. I haven’t tried to use this digital vaccine card anywhere yet. Because even though the record is is verifiable using a freely available app, it’s unclear which places are actually going to be checking digital records. My local restaurants? Movie theaters? Many places—like airlines, restaurants, and entertainment venues—are using a variety of different systems. How do I know if they’re going to be set up to take my digital vaccine record? The last thing I want to do is to try and argue with somebody about downloading the right app. I don’t love the idea of carrying around a paper record that could be damaged or lost, but it least it has certainty on its side.
Of course, this isn’t all on Apple—after all, people on other platforms will surely have digital vaccine readers, and all those entities that want to check people’s vaccination status have a vested interest as well. But, again, that fractured system is what makes it so tough.
This isn’t the only place Apple’s dealing with this kind of issue: with iOS 15, the company also announced plans to work with states to make digital versions of driver’s licenses and state IDs. This feature is designed to work more like Apple Pay, where only certain requested information is transmitted via NFC to a reader device that can verify that information is accurate.
I’m still hopeful that having a digital vaccine card means I’ll be able to leave my paper record at home, but at the moment, it looks like I’ll probably be carrying both.
- Apple and Google’s exposure notification framework is a great example of a system that had a lot of potential, but the haphazard and patchy way it was rolled out across the country strongly hampered any utility it might have. (There were other problems as well, to be sure, but the implementation certainly didn’t help.) ↩
- By now I imagine a great number of our international readers who come from countries with national healthcare systems are wondering what fresh hell this is. Welcome to America! ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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