- About 16% of US adults are digitally illiterate — yet signing up for the vaccine requires navigating multiple web pages.
- Implementation of ‘vaccine passports’ could be similarly problematic since not everyone has a smartphone.
- Privacy concerns about data linked to the verification QR codes need to be addressed before implementation.
- David Wang, PhD, is an Associate Professor at DePaul University. He is an award-winning researcher in the field of accounting information systems with a focus on information technology management and information security management.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
As of the first week of February, 26 million people have received the COVID-19 vaccination. However, because administrators are focusing on digital apps and websites to schedule and track sign-ups, a large segment of the most vulnerable population is being left out.
About 16% of the US population is digital illiterate. According to a 2018 study, adults who are not competent in digital communication are less educated, older, and more likely to be Black, Hispanic, or foreign born. They also tend to work in lower skilled jobs which means they are less likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic.
This is the exact group most at-risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, yet they are the least likely to be able to navigate the digital systems necessary to receive the vaccination.
You have to be digitally literate to sign up for the vaccine
Signing up for the vaccine can be a frustrating process, even when you are digitally literate. Users need to navigate through multiple web pages and different sign-up systems before they can successfully sign up for an appointment. Users also need to be able to access vaccine updates online. With the already complicated information regarding the vaccines and the time requirements of two dosages, navigating these systems adds another layer of complexity for people who are less comfortable with the digital environment.
Trouble with vaccine passports
It’s also troubling to see the emphasis put on digital tracking. Vaccination Credential Initiative proposed a SMART Health Card – a kind of vaccine passport – so individuals can have access to their COVID-19 vaccine digital record. The record, shown on a smartphone or a paper, can be used for schools, work, travel or events to verify vaccination status when returning to “normal.” Companies joining this initiative include major tech firms such as Microsoft, Salesforce, and Oracle, and healthcare organizations such as the Mayo Clinic.
This means for verification, however, can be problematic. Only about 81% of US adults have a smartphone. The number of smartphone owners begins to drop off dramatically when age, income level, and education are taken into account – only 53% of Americans over 65 have a smartphone.
And being able to use a printed QR code as verification comes with its own challenges. It can be difficult to find and print the QR code since the shift to prioritize digital users means access to printers is shrinking. COVID-19 has accelerated the printer extinction and the service is not expected to recover, increasing the challenge for the low-income population to participate in services that require paperwork filled out in advance.
If widely implemented, digital vaccine passports will become a new source of inequality, given the unwillingness among many groups to take the vaccine. A recent study shows only 42% of Black Americans are willing to participate in vaccination due to historical trauma and mistrust. Additionally, people with high incomes are more likely to take the vaccine than those with middle or lower income. As more people are vaccinated, requiring proof of vaccination to participate in society will be problematic given that people with lower income and different ethnic backgrounds can have different beliefs about vaccination.
A digital passport also raises privacy concerns. Showing a QR code on a printed piece of paper or smartphone might seem like a safe way to guard your data. However, that is not the case. When using the QR code to enter an office building, board a plane, or participate in an event, the vaccination status information can be linked to employee records, passenger profiles, or information provided to an event. An individual’s vaccine status, along with other linked data such as contact and payment information, are now in the hands of any event organizer who requires a digital vaccine passport to participate in their event or activity.
This potentially raises HIPAA concerns because it is still unclear how shared data will be used and how long it will be kept. Given that those with lower incomes and people of color are more likely to avoid being vaccinated, the vaccination status verification information could also lead algorithms to identify sensitive information.
Science and technology working in tandem can help bring an end to the pandemic. However, it is of no use if the solution helps one segment of the population and leaves the most vulnerable behind. Digital vaccine sign-ups and digital passports sound good in theory, but anything that limits access to at-risk populations and creates a system in which personal data could be transmitted freely should be closely scrutinized.
David Wang, PhD, is an Associate Professor at DePaul University. He is an award winning researcher in the field of accounting information systems with a focus on information technology management and information security management. He is an Op-Ed Fellow through the Public Voices Fellowship at DePaul University.