New Jerseyans can now access their COVID-19 vaccination records electronically — and at no direct cost — via a computer application called Docket that’s said to make it easier for people to store and prove their immunization status.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that the state Department of Health is working with Docket to provide residents access to their personal vaccine information, starting with coronavirus inoculations. Eventually, other personal vaccine records would be available to users, he said.
“To be absolutely clear, this is not a (vaccine) ‘passport,’” Murphy stressed during his now-weekly media briefing. “Docket is intended solely to give residents easy access to their COVID vaccination record, especially if their vaccination card has been damaged or lost.”
COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be highly effective and overwhelmingly safe. But the concept of vaccine passports — documents that government or private industries use to prove immunization status — has become controversial in New Jersey and nationwide. Supporters believe such vaccine identification methods can help society reopen in the wake of the pandemic, but others worry requiring passports would discriminate against those who have not been vaccinated for personal or logistical reasons.
Racial disparities remain
“I’m where I’ve been on passports. I’m not ‘hell, no,’ but we continue to need to make more progress on the equity front” with vaccine access and coverage, Murphy said. “We’ve come a long way” in reducing racial disparities in vaccinations, he said, but “until we get more fair access, while I’m open minded, I don’t think the timing is right.”
More than 5.1 million people have now been inoculated against coronavirus in New Jersey, but state data shows vaccine coverage continues to lag in many Black and Hispanic communities. A Rutgers University poll conducted in May said that politics also plays a large role; nearly half of the Republicans surveyed then said they were not vaccinated and one in five white residents indicated they “definitely will not” get a COVID-19 shot.
New Jersey health commissioner Judy Persichilli said the Docket app — which has been approved by federal regulators and adheres to strict security standards — is currently being used in Utah and will soon roll out in other states. The software can be downloaded for free from the App Store or Google Play in English or Spanish.
“Providing this record digitally, as is done with other health records, simplifies access for consumers,” Persichilli said Monday. “The app will be helpful to those who lost their vaccination card or want quick access to their record.”
Simplifying the process
Previously, someone who lost or destroyed their COVID-19 vaccine card would need to file a request form and supporting documentation to DOH, Persichilli said. Staff with the New Jersey Immunization Information System, which tracks vaccine use, would then need to copy and mail out records, a process she said could take several days.
Once Docket is downloaded, individuals who have an email address or phone number on file with NJIIS can access their coronavirus vaccine history through the system, Persichilli said. They can also create a shared account for family data.
Information about New Jerseyans vaccinated out-of-state is currently not available, Persichilli said, but officials are working to include that data. “Future plans include expanded access to other full immunization histories” stored in NJIIS, she added.
The federal government is covering the cost of the technology through the end of 2021, DOH communications director Donna Leusner said, after which the health department could contract directly with Docket to continue the program at an estimated cost of $8,000 to $10,000 a month.
“If you are unvaccinated, please make a plan to get vaccinated,” Persichilli added, noting the highly transmissible delta variant was now the most common strain, accounting for more than four in 10 cases by late June. “People who are not vaccinated remain at risk. Virtually all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are among those who are unvaccinated,” she said.
Controversy over vaccine verification
While state officials said they envisioned Docket as a personal records-management tool, it is not clear what would prevent private businesses from requesting access to the app to determine who was immunized. Murphy, a first-term Democrat seeking reelection in November, declined to answer a reporter’s question about this possibility Monday.
Several states — including New York, which was first with its Excelsior Pass — have embraced similar technology to help assess public health risk as businesses and government services reopen. At least five states are exploring the use of vaccine-status apps, according to Becker’s Hospital Review, while two dozen have banned their use outright or are considering legislation to do so.
Republican lawmakers in New Jersey have introduced several measures aimed to restrict the use of these vaccine-verification systems, but they have not advanced to a hearing in the state Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) said Monday’s announcement underscores the need to protect against these types of requirements, which the bill sponsors believe would essentially force people to get the shot, regardless of their personal beliefs.
“Gov. Murphy hasn’t been transparent with New Jerseyans during the pandemic and he’s refused to rule out the use of vaccine passports,” Testa said Monday. “We need to be vigilant to ensure this app doesn’t suddenly morph into a vaccine passport that people are forced to display everywhere they go.”
Docket Health Inc., a small New York City-based technology firm founded in 2016, created the app’s cloud-based system to better connect patients with their health data through electronic medical records. It also allows patients to access clinical information, communicate with providers and schedule appointments.