For those currently unaware, in the state of Michigan, everyone — and yes that means everyone — above the age of 16 is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 5. This is the case country-wide, for the most part, with the exception of a few states that are expanding their eligibility soon.
In other words, the time to get vaccinated is upon us. The University of Michigan has already vaccinated over 40,000 individuals and that number is likely to increase soon, particularly among our now eligible student population. As I wrote not long ago, it is imperative that students get vaccinated as soon as possible; doing so is not only vital for the betterment of the community’s public health, but also for increasing the possibilities for various gatherings and related activities during the upcoming fall semester.
On a national scale, around 35% of the United States’s population has received at least the first dose of a vaccine. If we remain at the current pace of vaccination, we can expect that number to reach at least 75% by the end of June, if not higher. Slowly but surely, normal is in sight — so again, go get vaccinated.
Now that my biweekly plea to my peers to get vaccinated has been made, it’s important to also think about what happens after the U.S. has reached the target vaccination level. After all, for many, including myself, normalcy includes the freedom to travel internationally. On either end — traveling outside of the U.S. or returning home — proof of vaccination is likely going to be a requirement for entry at some point.
Vaccination passports, which are essentially digitized proofs of vaccination, are beginning to be tested by a handful of companies and institutions here in the U.S. While the topic remains relatively controversial amongst some politicians, a vaccination mandate of some sort could possibly be a smart idea (and a legal one, for those worried) for maintaining safety within some contexts.
But the argument against these “passports” is more nuanced than the blanket statement of “I don’t like the restrictions a mandate like this imposes on my freedoms,” although that certainly is a stance for those also against vaccination in the first place. To those individuals, I urge you to read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s article detailing the benefits of vaccination.
Now, back to my main point. To illustrate it best, let’s consider a hypothetical. You are looking to attend a Detroit Pistons game with some friends next winter and the NBA, or even simply the Pistons themselves, have an application or system that requires you to sign in and verify your vaccination status. While for some it won’t be an issue, there are many who will be concerned about the fact that the Detroit Pistons organization now has access to part of their health-related information — your vaccination records and maybe more. That is just one possible scenario.
Imagine how many leisure or non-essential activities one does within a week, such as dining at a restaurant or going to the gym. Depending on how something like a vaccination passport is implemented, all of these organizations could theoretically have data about parts of your vaccination history.
While that concern could likely be mitigated if a standardized means of checking vaccination status can be established, we are far from that point. The companies and institutions experimenting with such a system are not using the same means of checking vaccination status; each is using their own technologies and that variation in technology is where the heart of the privacy concern comes into play. If every company across the U.S. were to use the same methods for checking, privacy concerns could likely be quelled.
There is also the concern of the false sense of security that implementing a standardized vaccination passport might bring. There will be many that will likely interpret such proof of vaccination as equivalent to not having the disease, or being safe from getting it. Indeed, the approved COVID-19 vaccines have shown to be effective in trials thus far, but one should not equate vaccination with guaranteed immunity.
And, of course, there are various equity-related concerns. Both domestically and especially internationally, many have not or are not going to be able to receive a vaccine for some time. In that regard, there has to be a push and pull between mandating vaccination and making sure the white and wealthy do not have an unfair “immuno-privilege” because of how access to vaccines has unfolded on a global scale.
At the same time, vaccination passports have the ability to establish an efficient and possibly more reliable means of keeping the virus from entering certain establishments, or even the country as a whole. In other words, the passport idea is not all bad. Proof of vaccination, at the end of the day, is the most likely way of providing assurance that one does not have COVID-19. The implications for hospitals, care facilities, etc., who have been restricting loved ones from connecting while sick with other conditions are considerable.
With all of that being said, in no way should these criticisms of passports persuade anyone from getting vaccinated. They are the most effective way to protect oneself from the virus and to ensure a return to some degree of normalcy soon, at least domestically. Still, as more of us get vaccinated, there will need to be some thorough policy considerations from our governments and the private sector. Prioritizing privacy, equity and public health all at the same time is not an easy thing to do — but it needs to be done.
Until we reach that point, the message remains the same: Go get vaccinated. For U-M students, there are only about two weeks left in the semester; make it happen so the fall can be enjoyed alongside others.
John Tumpowsky is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.