To put away masks, adopt proof of vaccination

COVID-19 hits home.

Steve had a great point this morning. He and his family have all had COVID-19 and he and his wife are both vaccinated. There really is no good reason for the two of them to have to wear masks as they go about their business in Atlanta. Their odds of getting infected with COVID again or spreading the virus to anyone else are extremely low. So why are the Bermans being subjected to a universal mask mandate once again?

The answer is that we have no good way to determine who has survived COVID and/or been vaccinated and who is simply running around without a mask despite being unvaccinated. The key to getting things back to normal in a world of the Delta variant is going to be telling the difference between the people who are doing the right thing with respect to vaccinations and the people who would be hiding a zombie bite if this were a zombie apocalypse movie. I know people who are unvaccinated but who are running around like they are invincible and I’m sure you do too.

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Like everything else related to this pandemic, the phrase “vaccine passport” has taken on political implications. In the past, most of us haven’t had a problem with the use of vaccination records for school, work, travel, or military service, but now, thanks to conspiracy theories and the sinister rebranding of vaccination records as “passports,” it’s suddenly an issue of personal rights. This is wrong on two counts.

First, as I described a while back, the Supreme Court has upheld mandatory vaccinations and recent lower court rulings have affirmed the authority of organizations to require vaccines. It would be legal to mandate the vaccine and it is legal to limit the public actions of those who refuse to be vaccinated.

Second, at this point, you do have a right not to get a COVID vaccine, but you don’t have the right to escape the consequences of refusing to be vaccinated. There’s nothing new about this. Even before the pandemic, if you didn’t get your shots, you couldn’t enroll in school, travel to certain destinations, or hold certain jobs. Decisions have consequences.

This is not new. If you look closely at the picture that accompanies this article, you’ll see that it is a polio vaccination certificate from 1963 rather than a 2021 COVID vaccination card. Polio vaccines were mandated in the 1950s and you would have had to show a card like this to enroll in school.

All this matters because it is the unvaccinated who are driving the current stage of the pandemic. Statistics show that the most serious COVID cases and deaths in the US are now almost exclusively among the unvaccinated.

Even though the vaccines are less effective at preventing infection by the Delta variant than they were against previous strains, they still help to reduce the chance of infection as well as to help prevent a serious illness in the case of a breakthrough infection. Further, vaccines seem to greatly reduce the chances of spreading the disease to others in a breakthrough infection, although this seems to be lessened in the case of Delta as well.

The bottom line is that it is the unvaccinated who are most vulnerable to all of the variants of COVID-19. They also seem to be the ones doing the most to spread it.

This has taken on a new personal importance to me. If you follow me on Twitter (and if you don’t, why not?), you may already know that my wife tested positive for COVID yesterday. This is despite the fact that our entire family is fully vaccinated.

As with many of the COVID infections, my wife’s case seems to have begun at church. We went to church after it reopened last summer but then went back to virtual church as the virus surged over the winter. We started back a second time after being vaccinated last spring.

On Wednesday, we got an email from our church saying that someone who was at the service on Sunday had tested positive. Citing privacy concerns, the email didn’t say who the person was so we didn’t know if we were in close contact or not. Later that night, my wife started developing allergy-like symptoms like sneezing. Since we had planned to visit our parents this weekend, she decided to get tested. Yesterday, she got a positive result. The nurse at the clinic said that my wife was the first person that she had seen who had tested positive after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. (That may be a result of the smaller number of J&J jabs rather than its efficacy. Who knows?)

So far, her case is mild. That’s good news as far as COVID is concerned, but still, nothing that you’d really want to endure if you didn’t have to. The rest of the family is still free of any symptoms and we are once again all quarantined at home. Due to my flying schedule, it is possible that I’m a couple of days behind the rest of the family on the exposure timeline.

Even though we’ve had one breakthrough infection in the family, I’m glad that we are a fully vaccinated family. I can be more confident in my wife’s recovery since she is vaccinated. I can hope that the rest of the family will not get infected since we are all fully vaccinated and my wife may not be as contagious as she would otherwise. All in all, there really is no downside to being vaccinated even though our family beat the odds with a breakthrough infection.

Public policy right now is about balance. We have to balance nudging the unvaccinated to take their shots with rewarding those who have been responsible. We have to balance promises made in the past with mitigating an even more deadly new variant. We have to balance privacy rights with the need to slow the spread once again.

The best way to do that is to allow government and private organizations to require proof of vaccinations for employees and customers. This idea is based on the conservative notion that actions (or inactions) have consequences. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, you don’t have to, but you also don’t get to go to concerts this summer or football games this fall. You might also have to find a job or school that matches your beliefs about vaccines.

This is not a new idea and it is not unconstitutional. It is an idea whose time has come once again.

Just don't call them "vaccine passports."

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