Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

The next major flash point in the pandemic could be vaccine passports.

Jonathan Wolfe


Credit…The New York Times

First it was masks. Then summer vacations, the holidays and, most recently, jumping the vaccine line. Now, the next major pandemic flash point could be vaccine passports.

The idea is that governments will issue documents or phone badges that demonstrate that people have been inoculated against the coronavirus, allowing them access to flights, businesses and other areas of public life. Vaccine passports have already been initiated to some extent in Israel, and are under discussion in the European Union, the United States, and among airlines and tourism-related sectors around the world.

But the idea presents sticky ethical and practical risks for governments and organizations, which my colleague Max Fisher explored in the Interpreter column.

There are clear upsides to the passports. They could help economies to restart, families and friends to reunite and allow for some degree of normalcy to return. They may enable more sporting events, concerts, cultural events, parties, international travel and tourism. Businesses would be able reopen without putting employees or customers at undue risk. Many experts say they will be an inevitable part of post-pandemic life.

But dividing the world into vaccinated and unvaccinated people could also widen socioeconomic and racial gaps. Privileges for the vaccinated would favor groups that are inoculated at higher rates, which in the Western world tend to be white and wealthy.

It could also lead to prejudices and discrimination against groups that are perceived to have lower vaccination rates, experts say, similar to racial profiling.

The passports may also create huge inequalities among nations. Most vaccines have gone to rich countries, and it may be two or three years before vaccines reach poorer countries, essentially blocking their citizens from traveling abroad.

A complex set of rules that govern the passports will also need to be sorted out, said Nicole A. Errett, a University of Washington public health expert. Do Russian- or Chinese-made vaccines qualify? What are the rules for religious or medical opt-outs? Are restrictions in place until herd immunity is reached, or forever?

The first steps. Cyprus announced today that it plans to allow vaccinated residents of Britain to visit the island beginning in May.

During the summer, as some areas of the country were dealing with a terrifying surge of the virus, Rhode Island stood out as a bright spot.

By December, its sterling image had collapsed. The small state was so overrun by the virus that it held the dubious distinction of having more cases and deaths per 100,000 people than any other. Even now, it continues to struggle with the virus.

So where did it go wrong?

My colleague Apoorva Mandavilli dug into this question and discovered a number of factors, all present in other places in the country, but which converged into a bigger problem in Rhode Island.

  • The state’s “pauses” on economic activity were short-lived and patchy, leaving indoor dining, shopping malls and bowling alleys open.

  • Chilly weather sent people indoors, where risk of infection from the virus is greater.

  • A highly dense population allowed for more opportunities for transmission.

  • The state also has a high percentage of residents in nursing homes, accounting for the bulk of its deaths.

  • Poverty also played a role, and its immigrant and Latino communities were disproportionately devastated, as they have been in other parts of the country.

The state’s hospitals also struggled to care for the sick and dying. Early in the pandemic, most health care workers didn’t have N95 masks, and later some were asked to place masks in paper bags at the end of the day and reuse them. Nurses also showed up to work, even if they were sick, because many got only 40 hours of sick leave a year.

In recent weeks, the surge has subsided somewhat, but cases in Rhode Island are still the third highest per capita in the country.

  • In the U.S., 69 percent of the public now plans to get vaccinated — or already has — up from 60 percent in November, according to a new survey.

  • The health regulator in Canada authorized the use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, giving the country four approved vaccines.

  • The drug safety agency in South Korea approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; doses for about 23 million people are expected to begin arriving this month.

  • Pope Francis was vaccinated against Covid in January, but in Iraq, which the pope is visiting, the population has practically no access to vaccines.

In 2019, my dear friend changed things. He kissed me, and well, that was it. But he lived far away in another state, and Covid hit. Since then, this remarkable man and I have spoken every week. It’s FaceTime, although it feels a bit like Jane Austen — in the parlor, chaperones, all about the conversation. It has been a year of extraordinary conversations: our stories, family histories, film, regular exchanges of poetry and prose, our creative work, outrageous humor, wisdom, solace, and yes, even the weather. We are waiting for shots so that we can travel to see one another. Oh, and did I mention that we are 70?

— Kathryn Jill Timmons, Oregon

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Jonathan Wolfe