Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Vaccine passports are shaping up to be the next big wedge issue in the United States.

Jonathan Wolfe


Credit…The New York Times

As the ranks of the inoculated in the U.S. grow, businesses, schools and politicians are considering “vaccine passports” — digital proof of vaccination against the coronavirus — as a path to reviving the economy and postpandemic life.

But the idea is raising knotty moral and legal questions — about whether businesses and schools can require them and whether the government can mandate vaccinations or stop organizations from demanding proof.

The answer to these questions is mostly yes, but the issue is fast becoming a political one. Vaccine passports are shaping up to be the next big clash in the American culture wars.

Today, the Republican governor of Texas barred many organizations from requiring proof of vaccination, following a similar move in Florida. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and elsewhere have begun drafting legislation that would ban or limit vaccine passports. Some Republicans say the passports are Democratic overreach, socialism or an intrusion on personal liberty and private health choices.

Many organizations and businesses, however, see the passports as a way to keep employees, customers and others safe and are pushing forward. A number of universities have already said they will require proof of vaccination from students this fall, and airlines are trying out apps showing the vaccination status of pilots and crews.

Some countries have moved to institute national vaccine passports. In Israel, the Green Pass system has allowed a return to something similar to prepandemic life, as vaccinated individuals are free to go to concerts and restaurants and gather in groups. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced yesterday that Britain would create Covid certificates that would give holders access to public areas like nightclubs and to sporting events.

In the U.S., the Supreme Court has declared, in two separate cases, that government entities can largely require vaccinations for entry, service and travel. Private companies can also largely refuse to employ or do business with anyone they want, although states can probably override that by enacting a law barring discrimination based on vaccination status.

President Biden appears reluctant to wade into the fray, after signing an executive order to “assess the feasibility” of producing digital vaccination documents. The White House has said that it will not be pushing to pass a federal mandate and would leave vaccine passports up to the private sector, mystifying some local and state heath officials who want the federal government more involved.

In China, which has largely contained the coronavirus outbreak and made big strides in returning to normal life, many people just don’t feel the urgency to line up for a vaccine. Others are wary of China’s history of vaccine-related scandals, a fear that the lack of transparency around Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines has done little to assuage.

That’s where the ice cream comes in. In Beijing, vaccinated people get buy-one-get-one-free cones. Elsewhere, local governments have published poems and warned parents that if they refuse a shot, their children’s schooling, future employment and housing were all at risk.

“They say it’s voluntary, but if you don’t get the vaccine, they’ll just keep calling you,” said Annie Chen, a university student in Beijing, who relented after she received two vaccine entreaties from a school counselor in about a week.

The all-out blitz appears to be working. Over the past week, China has administered an average of about 4.8 million doses a day, up from about one million a day for much of last month. The authorities hope that 560 million people will be vaccinated by the end of June — about 40 percent of China’s population.

Despite the surge in vaccinations, China still lags far behind dozens of other countries. Though the country has approved five homegrown vaccines, it has administered 10 shots for every 100 residents. Britain has administered 56 for every 100; the United States, 50.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

My uncle died from Covid complications in December, so for my family and so many others, we will grieve long after the pandemic is over. There is a sadness in my mom’s voice that was never there before. He was her younger brother and we’ve been unable to have a service for him. People are so excited to go out and get back to normal, but for so many of us, there is no normal, we will forever be a statistic. It’s been difficult seeing so many people who don’t take Covid seriously or won’t get the vaccine. That has been something I’ve really struggled with. I’ve learned during the pandemic the only thing that really matters in life is holding close to your loved ones.

— Sunnie Haeger, Denver

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Amelia Nierenberg contributed to today’s newsletter.

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Jonathan Wolfe