Digital papers, please? New York becomes first state to roll out IBM's digital COVID-19 vaccine passport

COVID vaccine passport
New York’s new Excelsior Pass, developed with IBM, enables local businesses to quickly verify customers’ health status. (ttatty/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

The race is on to develop a standardized COVID-19 “passport” that will make it easier for businesses and venues to verify a customer’s vaccination or testing status before allowing them entry. First to cross the finish line? IBM and New York state, which launched the Excelsior Pass March 26.

Built on the tech giant’s Digital Health Pass platform, it combines a smartphone wallet app for individual use and a scanner app for businesses. The official launch comes after two pilot programs and a beta test proved its efficacy.

Users link their vaccination records or negative PCR or antigen test results to the Excelsior Pass app, which then displays a QR code that can be scanned by businesses and event venues. Individuals can also choose to print out the QR code for verification.

All information used by the Excelsior Pass is secured via blockchain and other encryption methods, and no private health data are stored in either app. Users are required to show a second form of ID alongside the digital pass to verify the health data as their own.

“New Yorkers have proven they can follow public health guidance to beat back COVID, and the innovative Excelsior Pass is another tool in our new toolbox to fight the virus while allowing more sectors of the economy to reopen safely and keeping personal information secure,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

RELATED: IBM links with Salesforce to offer digital COVID-19 vaccine passports

Though the app is currently only available to New Yorkers, the technology behind it was specifically designed to be scaled to other states and platforms. In December, for example, IBM partnered with Salesforce to help employers bring the Digital Health Pass technology to employees and customers.

In the meantime, however, several other entities are rushing to roll out their own versions of the digital passport, with The Washington Post reporting the Biden administration has at least 17 of these initiatives on its radar. Each faces the unenviable task of rushing to deliver an urgently needed tool that will standardize vaccine and testing records to support reopening efforts while also ensuring security and accessibility for all users and their data.

As one federal official told the Post, “This has a high likelihood of being either built wrong, used wrong or a bureaucratic mess”—so it will be quite some time before any of these digital initiatives are made more widely available.