The idea of “vaccine passports”—physical or virtual documents proving that their carrier had gotten COVID shots, and which would be required to gain access to a given space—got preemptively gnarled, in the United States, by the defiant and oppositional reflexes of the Republican Party’s ascendant Petulant 2-Year-Old Caucus. Even the term vaccine passport itself is fraught—played up by the anti-vax movement, presumably, because it connotes more jet-set exclusivity and intimidating legal finality than dryer phrases, like immunization record or health pass, that describe the same thing. The certainty of immediate behavioral, political, and legal backlash must weigh on the public officials and business owners, even in the bluest states, who have so far refrained from instituting these requirements. The events of Jan. 6—among many, many other events—prove that crossing the right wing carries risks including violence even if its cause is ultimately a losing and stupid one.
And there have also been reasons not to impose vaxxing requirements besides the potential for rural Michigan weapons enthusiasts named Daryl self-declaring martial law. The coronavirus vaccines are still being distributed under emergency authorization, which means they haven’t been fully certified as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. This complicates the case that taking one is a necessity, when the chief non-conspiracy reason that members of the public give for hesitancy is safety. (There are plenty of people who have reasons besides right-wing media not to immediately trust health officials.) There are also right-wing activist groups ready to file lawsuits against vaccine requirements, and the still-pending FDA approval gives them a stronger case. There’s the matter of access, too; not everyone owns a car or has the job and child care flexibility required to take the time to get a COVID shot (and recover from it) on short notice.
Finally, there is the default presumption against compelling private citizens to do things, which, when taken in combination with scientific ambiguity about what level of vaccination would be required to achieve mass immunity, made it defensible to let Americans get the vaccine when they wanted, given that many tens of millions of them definitely wanted it right away so that they could go to a restaurant without dying.
The delta variant and the amount of time that has elapsed since vaccinations began have changed these calculations. Herd immunity wasn’t reached by voluntary means, and the more contagious strain of the virus has created a widespread, fatal threat not just to the unvaccinated but to those who have been vaccinated and have age- or illness-related vulnerabilities. Unless the FDA is hoarding secret information in Maryland that shows otherwise, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have established a clean safety record. Enough is known about the remaining unvaccinated population that officials should be able to deploy supplies and transportation resources to those who want the vaccine but haven’t gotten it yet. (Also, it should be the law that employers have to give employees paid days off to take the shot and recover. A real no-brainer!) If we can be confident about anything, it’s that a surge of vaccination will keep many lives from ending prematurely: Vaccinated people can still contract COVID, but the studies say they will be subsequently less likely to spread the virus, and much less likely to die.
But the carrot of being able to drastically reduce your chances of dying on a ventilator has been available long enough, and with limited enough effect, that the stick is starting to look real nice. This is a judgment call, sure; most things about creating societywide rules for COVID are judgment calls, as it has turned out. There’s no system for deciding when harsher measures are appropriate besides when we decide they are, and delta has the justifications for doing so piling up in a big stack. The prospect of enduring incapacitating “mild” breakthrough cases and self-imposed quarantines, watching the health care system become critically overburdened again, having to readopt social distancing and indoor masking, and, frankly, having to continue to bear the anxiety of thinking about a virus all the time: That’s a lot of weight on one side of the scale, especially considering that, given the shrinking number of good-faith hesitancy cases, most of what’s on the other side of that scale are analogies involving yellow stars and Hitler created by White America’s least attentive high school history students.
Given the logistical difficulties of creating portable, counterfeit-proof vaccine records, it would be difficult to begin imposing requirements immediately. But making sure that literally no one in the country gets into a concert with a fake vaccine record wouldn’t be the point anyway. The point would be to strongly, strongly nudge the hesitant and the procrastinating toward vaccination. That doesn’t require foolproof pass technology, only that American institutions that aren’t captured by MAGA conspiracy brain—blue-state governments, large businesses, colleges, transit providers, urban cultural venues and restaurants—announce, contingent on full FDA approval, that they plan to make certain locations (and privileges like employment) inaccessible sometime soon to anyone who doesn’t have an immunization record or a medical exemption.
It would not be unprecedented. Cruise lines and the NFL and college football conferences and some college campuses are already doing it, as are the U.K. and France, countries that, contrary to the American cultural stereotype, have their own formidable movements of No One’s Gonna Tell Me What to Do people. Perhaps America’s corporate Goliaths—Amazon, Walmart, American Airlines—could demonstrate the virtues of their enormous scale to skeptical Democratic regulators by pushing this effort toward a tipping point.
The wide and expanding majority of eligible individuals who’ve chosen to get vaccinated in the United States have waited enough time. If the emphatically unprotected want to continue to exercise their right to get a severe respiratory disease because of junk information, or to prove a point to a largely imaginary version of the “elite,” that’s fine. They can just do it on their own time, in their own places, and literally nowhere else, so everyone else can breathe again.