British Columbia

Paper copies of COVID-19 vaccination cards bring out emotions digital records can't

Vaccinations records will be stored digitally, keeping in line with the times, but hard copies bring about emotions that don't come from an image glowing on a screen — the flat piece of cardstock is a physical, tangible evidence the pandemic might actually be coming to an end. 

'Holding that card is like holding hope,' says health-care worker now fully vaccinated

A health department worker in Pennsylvania fills out a vaccination record card before administering the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to emergency medical workers and health-care personnel on Dec. 29, 2020. British Columbia is also handing out proof of vaccine cards to people who are immunized against COVID-19. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

As soon as Joanna Hetzler received her paper card from the hospital in December, she immediately tucked it into her wallet next to her driver's license and released some of the tension she'd been holding inside for nearly a year.

Printed neatly across the top of the card in black ink was Hetzler's name. Below, the manufacturer and batch number of the COVID-19 vaccine that had just gone into her upper arm. The date she received her shot — eight remarkable numbers — was written on the right.

"Holding that card is like holding hope," said Hetzler, 45, who has worked at an assisted living facility in Mission, B.C., for the past nine years and received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

"It's been a hard year for health-care workers, a hard year for anyone who works in long-term care, assisted living, and to have that in our hands ... it's what we've been praying for and hoping for this whole year. Just waiting for an answer. Waiting for the change. Waiting for some hope to come that this is going to be over."

People who receive a COVID-19 vaccine get a card showing which vaccine they had and when each dose was administered. The full vaccination record in B.C. will be entered into an online provincial database, but British Columbians are also able to ask for a hard copy of their official record to keep with them.

Experts say the hard copies could bring about emotions that simply don't come from lines of letters glowing on a screen  — after an exhausting year, a piece of blue-and-gold cardstock is physical evidence the pandemic might actually be coming to an end. 

"It has this meaning attached to it," said psychologist Christine Korol, director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre.

"The reason why something tangible can be so meaningful can vary from person to person, [but] everyone's been waiting, waiting, waiting.... Everybody's wondering how much longer they're going to have to go forward with this," she continued. 

"So, anything that signals hope."

WATCH: Hetzler recorded a video after getting her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine:

Paper can be better

Printed immunization record cards continue to be used in B.C. and around the world, even in the advent of digital storage. Not everybody has ready access to a doctor who can access their online records or a stable internet connection to do it themselves. Some people simply prefer keeping track of their information at home. Plus, hard copies prevail when online databases crash, as they're known to do.

Internationally, paper cards were important after previous epidemics for people who travelled. "Yellow Cards" are still used as proof of vaccination against yellow fever since the epidemic of the 1960s, and there was once a requirement for international travellers to prove they were vaccinated for smallpox before the disease was declared eradicated in 1980.

An example of the immunization card that will be given to people who receive a COVID-19 vaccine in B.C. (Supplied by the B.C. Ministry of Health)

So, even though hard copies are nothing unusual, it's hard to know how attached people might become to paper records after the COVID-19 pandemic ends because there isn't a modern-day precedent, as far as health crises go.

"We don't have any sort of comparable evidence to say ... 'Oh, five years later, everyone was still clutching their dog-eared cards and using them to do whatever," said Heather MacDougall, historian of medicine, public health and health policy at the University of Waterloo.

"It provides the people who received the shots and receive the cards with a sense of reassurance that they've done their bit for themselves, their families and their community. And they've got proof that they can hold in their hand that they did this."

Immunization records are sure to have a complex effect on B.C.'s plans to control the pandemic and revive the economy as it moves out of pandemic life. The province hasn't yet laid out any scenarios in which it will require proof of vaccination — to travel, for instance — but public health officials will be looking at the records.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement Thursday the online database of COVID-19 vaccine records will be accessible to "public health leaders who require that kind of information in order to plan the ongoing control of the pandemic and the history of immunity in the province."

Before those decisions begin, the province must first get the immunizations done. Production delays mean B.C. will receive a reduced shipment of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in the next two weeks, frustrating officials.

In the meantime, Hetzler keeps her card close.

"I'm very fearful of losing it," she said. "I keep it with me at all times."

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