White House faces calls to embrace vaccine passports

Health experts are calling on the Biden administration to do more to encourage and promote the use of vaccine mandates and passports. 

So far, the White House has stayed out of what they view as an issue for private employers. 

The Biden administration has repeatedly said vaccine passports won’t be implemented at the federal level but has not discouraged individual companies from making the personal choice of implementing one. 

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Officials have also shied away from using mandates among federal employees or among military forces.

“If a company, a business wants to take steps to keep their workers and their passengers safe, I would think that, from a government perspective, we want to do everything we can to encourage that,” Secretary of Transportation Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegDOJ sues to block JetBlue-American Airlines partnership On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Blumenthal calls on Buttigieg to investigate American Airlines-JetBlue partnership MORE said recently.

There is no way to tell who is vaccinated and who is not without asking for proof, but the federal government has not given any kind of guidance or support to businesses that want to require proof of vaccination for customers and employees. 

With the nation poised to miss President BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE's July 4 goal of 70 percent partial vaccination, experts argue that more vocal support of mandates and passports could help to boost lagging vaccination rates.

“The Biden administration shouldn't be so squeamish about vaccine verification,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former health commissioner of Baltimore. 

Wen said the administration should have supported a standardized verification system, calling it a “missed opportunity” to increase vaccine uptake.

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Some people may just be waiting for the right incentive, and a mandate may push them in the right direction, she said.

“There are a lot of people in the middle. They're not eager to get the vaccine, but they're also not anti-vaxxers. They need an additional push. And that push is still not there, because we have not been requiring proof of vaccination in order to return to normal,” Wen said.

Polls show that young adults in particular would be motivated to get vaccinated if it was required in certain instances. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation's vaccine tracker found about 40 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 would get vaccinated if it was a requirement for large gatherings like sporting events or concerts, flying on an airplane, or for international travel. 

According to Kaiser, the people who would get the vaccine only if it was required mainly say they don’t feel they want or need the vaccine. They are not opposed to it, they just might not do it unless someone forced their hand.

For employers, experts said it is easier for certain industries to mandate vaccinations over others, especially in health care. 

But on the flip side, they will also need to be prepared for the fallout, especially if a large proportion of the staff refuses to be vaccinated. Larger businesses will be better equipped to handle it than smaller ones.

For example, Houston Methodist terminated or accepted the resignations of 153 workers after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over its mandatory vaccination policy. It was one of the first hospital systems in the nation to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said he expects more employers will mandate vaccinations once the vaccines are fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Both Moderna and Pfizer have applied for full approval, and a decision is expected later this summer.

“I think that the administration needs to really push on the FDA to get full licensure of these vaccines, because I think that's one thing that's holding back those mandates,” Adalja said. 

Adalja also faulted the Biden administration for not having a standardized vaccine certificate or electronic app for companies or venues that want one.

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“The idea of trying to have a kind of vaccine certificate or some way to prove your vaccination status, I think this is something that the government should have anticipated and thought through early on ... and made some way to make this easy to verify, instead of those flimsy cards they give you,” Adalja said.

The idea of mandates and vaccine passports is politically fraught though, and there is concern that any comments from the White House could backfire, especially in the rural, conservative areas of the country that have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation.

Many Republican governors have banned mandates and passports in any form, including from private employers, emphasizing that vaccination is a personal choice.

In addition, well-funded anti-vaccination groups are eager to challenge any kind of vaccine requirement.

“In the places where we're looking at right now, it will get very political very fast,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“The states we're talking about, these are the same states that were anti-mask, didn't believe COVID existed, had elected leaders who downplayed it in some situations and either closed too late or opened too early. And I guess I just don't have the trust that even if they tried to mandate it, that it would turn out OK.”

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Benjamin said he thinks the inevitable lawsuits over vaccine mandates and passports is not worth the relatively small reward.

Instead, he said the administration should double down on its ground campaign; trying to convince individual holdouts to get vaccinated by promoting neighborhood events, employing trusted messengers in community churches, and even sending people door to door.

“You're certainly going to get some more people on board, there's no doubt about that,” Benjamin said. But, “you will get such enormous pushback. What happens when someone takes it to court, and the judge says no? Then it undermines the whole effort.”