Move over face masks; there’s a new focus for unnecessarily political and divisive debate.
And like the arguments and refusals over masks, the new divide could derail efforts to increase the reopenings of businesses, venues and travel, as work continues to use vaccination to reach greater levels of herd immunity from COVID-19.
The name being used to describe the new tool — vaccine passports — may be part of the problem. While some may view a traditional passport as a gateway to international travel, others see the attempt to show a record of immunization as having the potential to exclude from freedom of movement and access those who have not been vaccinated or do not intend to get immunized.
More accurately described as a vaccination credential, the vaccine passports would allow those with a smart phone app or a printed facsimile to show they are fully vaccinated and are at a greatly reduced risk to contract or transmit COVID-19.
The debate over use of the credentials has hewed to earlier lines drawn over COVID restrictions and mask mandates.
The Biden administration has backed away from any proposal of a national vaccine certificate or even a record of who has been immunized. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said last week.
That’s just as well; any national mandate is likely to ramp up the politicization of the issue and make such efforts next to impossible elsewhere.
It’s an effort better left to the states. U.S. Supreme Court precedent has long backed the rights of states to use vaccination mandates in limited situations, most commonly with states — Washington state is one — requiring immunizations for childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps and rubella, for children to attend public schools. Colleges and universities as well are considering requirement of COVID vaccination for students returning to campuses this fall.
Such passports, however, don’t have to rise to the level of a strict mandate and can be a voluntary program. Even so, states are lining up along the divides we’ve already seen over the past year.
Lawmakers and officials in Republican-led states, including Florida, Texas, Idaho and Missouri already have banned the use of vaccine passports either by state agencies or by businesses within those states, The Kansas City Star and The Hill reported Monday. Hawaii, by contrast — more dependent on inter-island travel — is moving to use vaccine certification for in-state travel by May and could extend it to out-of-state travel later this summer, Forbes reported, meaning those planning an island vacation may be required to show they’re immunized.
How the passport programs are established and how they are used may determine the public’s level of acceptance and their effectiveness in what should be their goal: encouraging people to get immunized.
The state of New York, the first state to set up a vaccine passport program, The Hill reports, has with its “Excelsior Pass” struck a good balance between persuasion and mandate in encouraging vaccinations. New York will use its pass to allow increased attendance at large-scale venues, such as Madison Square Garden, USA Today reported last month. It’s also being used to allow increased attendance for wedding parties and similar events.
A similar system could be established in Washington state. Using currently available technology tied to the state Department of Health’s immunization records, the vaccine certifications could be used to allow greater access to businesses, venues and events beyond current limits, rather than exclude those who are not vaccinated.
And those limits could yet be with us for a while. Three counties in the state — Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman — this week slid back to Phase 2 status and its more restrictive limits on businesses and gatherings, The Herald reported Monday. Snohomish County kept its Phase 3 status, but there’s no guarantee that the county will in coming weeks still meet the metrics for COVID case rates and hospitalizations that are used to determine those phases.
Currently, demand for COVID vaccines remains greater than the supply, but that may change in coming weeks as completed immunizations grow. About a third of Snohomish County residents have received at least the initial dose. By Thursday, all Washington residents 16 years of age and older will be eligible for vaccinations.
Resistance to vaccinations has dropped only slightly since December, according to polling by Kaiser Health News; about 1 in 5 Americans say they will refuse immunization or will be vaccinated only if required; that’s down from nearly 1 in 4 in December. But the same poll sees greater reductions in hesitancy, those who have taken a wait-and-see approach to the vaccines. About 17 percent were considered hesitant as of March, down from 39 percent in December.
Vaccine certification — when promoted as a passport toward greater access to restaurants, gyms and other venues — could be most effective in convincing those who now need just a gentle nudge to get their shots.
With a fresh understanding for the potential for sliding back to Phase 2 — or worse — businesses, organizations and local officials should consider calling on the state to follow New York’s lead in establishing a vaccination credential program.
Because every shot gets us that much closer to herd immunity and that much closer to putting COVID behind us.