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Neil Jay Sehgal is an assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. This column was written for the Baltimore Sun.
In April, as COVID-19 was on the decline in the U.S., and our collective optimism about the pandemic’s end was palpable, the Biden administration insisted that there would be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring a single vaccination credential. Such vaccine verification — the so-called “vaccine passport” — is politically fraught, much like everything else surrounding this pandemic. Today, 20 Republican-controlled states prohibit proof-of-vaccination requirements, and only four states, California, New York, Hawaii and Oregon, have created vaccine verification systems.
The virus that these states and the federal government were legislating for is a thing of the past, however. The delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is so much more infectious than previous strains that it behaves in many ways like a different virus entirely. Yet, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that the war has changed, our thinking about vaccine verification has not.
When the CDC recommended in May that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in most settings, businesses in most states were forced to trust that those not wearing masks in their establishments were indeed vaccinated; there is no way to tell vaccinated and unvaccinated people apart. Where mask mandates persisted, confrontations with patrons who didn’t want to wear them have been unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst.
The vaccine “honor code” that some thought would be sufficient to encourage masking by people who hadn’t yet been vaccinated has failed, and our collective move away from masking likely accelerated the spread of delta.
In June, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advised that employers can require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine or bar them from the office. To encourage vaccinations among their employees and ensure a safe return to in-person work, Google, Facebook, Netflix and Disney; the state of California, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Armed Forces and the entire civilian federal workforce announced that they will require vaccines for those who return to in-person work.
Historically, vaccine mandates have worked to stamp out infectious diseases like smallpox and polio. But mandates are only as effective as the systems in place to monitor adherence; as the adage says: “trust, but verify.” And, unfortunately, the easily forged vaccine cards we all received when getting our shots won’t cut it.
The University of Maryland, where I teach, is one of more than 600 universities that decided to require vaccination for students, staff and faculty returning in-person to campus in the fall. I’ve watched my university implement vaccine verification over the past months, and I can attest that it is no small feat for even a large organization such as ours. It is nearly impossible for small or medium-sized businesses or other places where people gather to take on the herculean task of vaccine verification. And this is precisely where our national stance on vaccine verification, and the federal government’s non-involvement in developing a trusted system, fails.
Though vaccine verification is contentious at home, the rest of the world is already embracing it, and the EU provides a good model for what our own system might look like. In fact, the EU Digital COVID Certificate allows users to verify not only that they have been vaccinated, but also whether they received a negative test result or recently recovered from COVID-19, since not being vaccinated shouldn’t bar you from participating in public life if you take the necessary precautions to keep others around you safe.
The EU certificate is free, secure and also available in a paper format for those who don’t have a smartphone. Most importantly, the certificate is the basis for policies being enacted across the EU requiring verification of a vaccine or negative test for access to restaurants, bars, trains and planes, inspiring confidence in a return to public life and restarting the economy while at the same time protecting the vulnerable.
With vaccine mandates becoming an increasingly essential tool to combat COVID in the U.S., it’s time the federal government implemented a national vaccine verification system that we can trust and is accessible to all. There’s too much at stake to expect businesses and individual states to handle this piecemeal on their own. In the face of the more infectious delta variant, our return to public life depends on it.