Grace Worwa – Opinion Columnist
We are now over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and according to the New York Times, more than 22 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated.
This, of course, is incredible news, but it also means that a shiny new pandemic-related debate is raging across the country: vaccine passports—do we require them or not?
Here at Gustavus, we face the very same question. Should the college require students to present vaccine passports in order to participate in on-campus events, or even to return to campus at all in the fall?
First off, some background. Vaccine passports are either card or digital documentation that proves you have been vaccinated. These documents would be more immune to fraud than the vaccination cards currently issued by the CDC.
Some vaccine passports currently in development are company-owned and manifest as an app downloaded to a smartphone. This includes the trusted traveler program Clear’s “Health Pass” app, the Commons Project Foundation’s “Commonpass”, and the International Air Transport Association’s “IATA Health Pass”.
Other vaccine passports appearing right now are government-issued.
For example, Israel’s “green pass” allows fully vaccinated Israeli residents to enter public spaces, like swimming pools and concerts. The European Commission is also working on a “Digital Green Pass” to allow easier travel between member states.
In the U.S., the federal government will not be involved in creating a domestic vaccine passport system, as President Biden’s chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told Politico Dispatch last Sunday.
Instead, like most other COVID-related matters, it appears that vaccine passports will develop on a state-by-state basis. And of course, states are all over the map.
For instance, New York recently launched its “Excelsior Pass,” according to 5 EyeWitness News. Businesses and venues will be able to scan this digital app in order to verify someone’s proof of vaccination or proof of negative COVID-19 results.
On the other hand, governors in Texas and Florida have banned the use of vaccine passports in their respective states. Montana followed suit on April 13, according to ABC News.
Then there are the states in the middle, like Minnesota. Last Sunday, Governor Waltz announced the state government will not adopt a vaccine passport system, but it will not ban them either. As such, private institutions like Gustavus will choose for themselves whether or not to require proof of vaccination on-campus.
According to 5 EyeWitness News, some colleges, such as Brown University and Rutgers University, have already said they will require vaccinations from returning students next fall, excluding those with a medical or religious exemption.
And Gustavus should follow suit because the benefits of doing so are overwhelming.
First off, mandating vaccinations would safeguard the health of everyone on-campus, and according to the CDC, that protection would be quite reliable. Research is still ongoing, but results thus far show that “fully vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection and potentially less likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to others.”
Thus, vaccines have proven exceptionally effective against infection, and preliminarily effective against transmission. However, this protection would be threatened if everyone in the Gustavus community was not vaccinated, or at least COVID-free.
The CDC reports that, “the risks of SARS-CoV-2 infection in fully vaccinated people cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus.”
In addition to increased health safety, mandated vaccinations on-campus would also mean a return to almost-normal college life.
Not only do students want this, but they need this. A Sept. 2020 survey in the Journal of Medical Internet Research showed that 71 percent of college students surveyed experienced increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. Some of the indicated stressors included decreased social interaction due to social distancing (86 percent) and increased concerns over academic performance (82 percent).
With vaccinations mandated on-campus, Gustie students could return to classes, student org activities, and on-campus events in-person. We would likely still have to wear masks and social distance, but we could see PEOPLE again, and that would be crucial to our mental health.
The benefits of requiring vaccine passports on-campus are certainly tantalizing. However, no COVID-related solution is ever perfect, and there are several snafus we must carefully consider beforehand.
First off, equity. Not everyone at Gustavus will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine before the fall. Whether a student doesn’t have access in their hometown, or a staff member can’t get the jab for medical or religious reasons, vaccine availability in the U.S. is unequal, and Gustavus should avoid exacerbating that at all costs.
As such, if the college were to mandate vaccinations, the jab must be made immediately available to everyone on-campus at the beginning of next semester.
As for those who cannot or will not receive a vaccine, the college must adopt a test-based system where Gusties can present negative COVID-19 results in order to access in-person activities and events. Several existing vaccine passport systems, such as the European Commission’s Digital Green Pass, New York’s Excelsior Pass, and all the aforementioned company-owned apps allow for negative test results in place of proof of vaccination.
Secondly, we must remember that a vaccine passport is not an immunity pass. COVID-19 variants have appeared in South Africa, Brazil, the UK, and California, among other places, and the CDC warns that vaccines may be less effective against them.
For instance, the J & J vaccine proved 66.3 percent in clinical trials against the standard COVID-19 virus, but was only 52 percent effective in South Africa.
As such, while we all desperately want to return to normal life, we may not be able to just yet. Mandated vaccinations on-campus will allow it to some extent, but it would not guarantee 100 percent safety. Thus, masks would still need to be worn and social distancing maintained, but mandating vaccines on-campus would still allow us to return to some semblance of normalcy that we desperately need.