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Here’s How Health Officials Plan to Track COVID-19 Vaccine Recipients

Vaccine kit created by Operation Warp Speed.

EJ Hersom / Department of Defense

Key Takeaways

  • Every COVID-19 vaccine recipient will receive a vaccination card telling them which vaccine they received, when and where it was administered, and when the next dose is due.
  • Vaccine recipients may also opt into a smartphone-based survey and reminder system.
  • Immunization records will also be kept in state registries and electronic records through health systems and pharmacies.

When individuals in the U.S. begin receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, they will receive an old-school way to keep track of their immunizations.

Last week, the Department of Defense released its first images of the COVID-19 vaccination record card. The paper cards will be included in vaccination kits to be distributed across the country once a vaccine is approved and produced.

Every person who receives a shot will be issued a wallet-sized card that includes information about:

  • their vaccination type
  • the date it was administered
  • the dosage
  • when the next dose is due

The cards will be available in both English and Spanish.

People who receive vaccine cards will be encouraged to take a photo of or keep the card, Army Gen. Gustave Perna, Operation Warp Speed’s chief operating officer, said at a briefing on December 2. The card will act as a supplement for vaccination records in electronic health systems and state immunization registries.

The federal agencies involved in Operation Warp Speed are taking “a triple canopy approach to try and make this work,” Perna said. “We’re doing our best to capture everybody to ensure they get their second dose.”

What This Means For You

Vaccine cards will act as a supplement to digital health records. They can remind you when your second dose is scheduled and will serve as an official certificate of immunization.

Covering All Bases

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will hold discussions on emergency use authorizations (EUA) for the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna on December 10 and 17, respectively. Operation Warp Speed, the partnership initiated by the federal government to accelerate vaccine development and distribution, has 100 million vaccine kits ready for when a vaccine receives an EUA.

When vaccine distribution begins in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies will deploy tried-and-true vaccine tracking and safety monitoring systems. They will also introduce new surveillance methods including a smartphone-based platform called V-SAFE. People can opt into the service when they receive a vaccination. Through the program, people can report adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccination and receive text messages reminding them when and where their next dose is scheduled to be administered.

While V-SAFE is a voluntary service, vaccination cards will be universally distributed to vaccination recipients. Cards are intended to be a reminder of which vaccine a person received and when they should get a second dose. Experts warn that they are not meant to be a “passport” to enter bars and restaurants or to discount safe public health practices.

“These shot cards are really meant to be a help for the public and for individuals,” Carolyn Bridges, MD, FACP, associate director for adult immunization at the Immunization Action Coalition, tells Verywell. “They’re meant to be an additional way to remind people to have a good record, to have a back-up so the appropriate doses are administered when they’re supposed to be.”

Why Tracking Matters

The two front-runner vaccine candidates, from the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, require two doses for optimal effectiveness. The second dose of the Pfizer vaccine should be received 21 days after the first. For the Moderna vaccine, the gap is 28 days.

Reminding people when it’s time to get the second shot will be important to ensure the vaccine is as effective as possible, Bridges says. Data from an FDA review published December 8 shows that the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine offers strong protection. However, the efficacy may increase by roughly 40% with the second dose, according to the data.

“The first dose primes the immune system," Bridges says. "You may see a small bump in your antibody level, but it’s really that second dose that gets you to the antibody level that should be protective. For your optimal immune response and protection, you need both.”

Tracking who receives the vaccine and when is also important for public health officials, Rebecca Coyle, executive director at the American Immunization Registry Association, tells Verywell. This data can help local and state officials decide where to focus their efforts.

“Let’s make sure all the ‘i’s are dotted and ‘t’s are crossed because we have a very scarce resource coming on board, and we want to make sure the information gets into the hands of anyone who would potentially need it,” Coyle says.

Old-School Monitoring

The use of vaccination cards is not new. In 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) created an international vaccination card called the Carte Jaune, or Yellow Card, for people to provide proof of vaccination when traveling to or from places where diseases like yellow fever were endemic.

In the U.S., children and adults receive a vaccination card to track which immunizations they receive and when. This record may be requested when a person joins a new place of employment, a sports team, traveling, and more. Under some state laws, parents or guardians must provide proof of their child’s immunizations to attend school.

These days, immunization records are stored in digital databases. The provider who administers the shot—at a clinic, medical center or pharmacy—records the vaccine type, the dosage received, and the date. This information should then be shared with the state, who stores the information in its own digital repository.

Especially for the COVID-19 pandemic, Coyle says keeping these immunization records in multiple places will help cover all bases. By distributing paper cards, people can easily keep track of their immunization records if they’re unable to access them digitally.

“It’s about giving that certificate back to the person and saying ‘hey, you also need to be responsible for this information and should you need it, here is the proof of your vaccination,’” Coyle says. “It’s really just equipping folks with another layer of the tangible aspect of the vaccination process.”

Ensuring Effective Information Sharing

There is currently no national immunization repository, though most states and organizations like American Immunization Registry Association (AIRA) maintain records. Coyle says she hopes that states will follow a set of standards when tracking vaccinations so that information can be easily shared between medical center and pharmacy electronic tracking systems and the states. Without a national framework for immunization information systems, she says effective communication of information may be challenging.

“For this pandemic, what’s different is that there are a number of new federal systems, and sharing data with the federal government at the level that they’re requesting hasn’t been done before,” she says.

Because vaccine distribution will likely roll out gradually, there may be time to recognize and fix errors in the national and more localized vaccine surveillance systems.

“I think we’ve got a little bit of a learning curve ahead of us, but further down the road this will be pretty routine,” Coyle says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. U.S. Department of Defense. Operation Warp Speed leaders hold briefing on vaccine distribution. Updated December 2, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ensuring the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. Updated October 14, 2020.

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee meeting. Updated December 10, 2020.

  4. Frommer's. Vaccine passports are nothing new. Travelers already use them. Updated December 3, 2020.

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