Record Pandemic Travel And The Ethics Of Vaccine Passports : Consider This from NPR The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's mixed messaging on travel reveals the uncertain future of the pandemic, Dr. Monica Gandhi tells NPR. Gandhi is an infectious disease expert at the University of California San Francisco.

In the future, some travelers may be required to verify their vaccine status to enter a stadium or attend a wedding. Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former member of President Biden's Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, tells NPR so-called vaccine "passports" can be made secure and private.

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Amid Record Pandemic Travel, What's Safe? And The Debate Over Vaccine Passports

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Amid Record Pandemic Travel, What's Safe? And The Debate Over Vaccine Passports

Amid Record Pandemic Travel, What's Safe? And The Debate Over Vaccine Passports

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For better or worse, Americans are on the move.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: The Atlanta airport was packed Sunday evening. It felt almost pre-pandemic.

CORNISH: In the days before Easter weekend, more people passed through TSA checkpoints than at any point during the pandemic. We're talking across the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: This morning, it could be another busy day at South Florida airports, with many residents looking to get away...

CORNISH: From Miami to Seattle.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: ...The security line at Seattle's International Airport twisting and turning its way out of ticketing and, well, into the parking lot.

CORNISH: And while Atlanta might be home to one of the busiest airports in the world, the crowds were still kind of a shock.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: We were talking, we were just so surprised by how many people you saw when you walked in.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Right, Michael (ph) This place was slammed. The line through security, very, very long, surprised me, even when we walked inside.

CORNISH: It's not hard to see why more people are traveling. Restrictions are on the decline. Vaccine eligibility is expanding. And according to a recent Gallup poll, fear of COVID-19 is at an all-time low. Just 35% of Americans are worried about getting sick.

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MONICA GANDHI: So let me just tell you I put my 87 and 80-year-old father and mother on a plane and brought them over here two weeks after their vaccination.

CORNISH: Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told NPR that the pandemic is in a really tricky place right now.

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GANDHI: Some of us are vaccinated. Some of us are not. Cases are rising in some parts of the country. It's not in others. We're in this weird transition zone.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - that transition zone is making it harder to know what's safe, especially when it comes to travel. We'll talk it out, and the debate over so-called vaccine passports. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, April 7.

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CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Good afternoon, everyone.

CORNISH: The number of people in America who've received a vaccine continues to go up.

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BIDEN: We're now administering an average of 3 million shots per day, over 20 million shots a week.

CORNISH: On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced that by April 19, vaccine eligibility would expand to all adults in all 50 states.

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BIDEN: Many states have already opened up to all adults. But beginning April 19, every adult in every state, every adult in this country, is eligible to get in line.

CORNISH: Now, eligible to get in line is one thing. Actually finding a shot is another. Still, millions of new people are doing that each day.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: As more people get vaccinated, we at CDC have the responsibility to provide you with science-based recommendations.

CORNISH: That's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who last Friday announced some new guidance on travel for people who have had their vaccine.

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WALENSKY: We state that fully vaccinated people can resume travel at low risk to themselves.

CORNISH: Walensky said that means if grandma and grandpa have had their shots, they can get on a plane and visit their healthy grandkids...

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WALENSKY: ...Without getting a COVID-19 test or self-quarantining, provided they follow the other recommended prevention measures while traveling.

CORNISH: Seems clear, right? Get your shot. Book a flight. Don't forget your mask. But then two minutes later, Walensky said this.

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WALENSKY: While we believe that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves, CDC is not recommending travel at this time due to the rising number of cases.

CORNISH: Wait. what?

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GANDHI: I think it's hard to be the CDC because you're trying to message caution. But actually, it's really important for us right now to give people motivating messages.

CORNISH: To Monica Gandhi, the infectious disease expert you heard from earlier, the CDC's mixed messaging highlights just how uncertain the pandemic is right now. She spoke to NPR's Ailsa Chang about what really is safe when it comes to travel.

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GANDHI: You know, I can see sort of the whiplash aspect of saying one thing and then saying another in the same day. And it reminded me of a mother, like, of someone like a teenager who just started driving and is doing a great job and knows how to drive, and you're like, yeah, of course you can go out with your friends. You have your license now. I mean, you may crash the car.

AILSA CHANG: (Laughter) Right.

GANDHI: But you can go out with your friends. I think it's confusing. I think it's hard to message.

CHANG: Yeah. You want to be reassuring, and you kind of want to scare people at the same time a little bit.

GANDHI: Right.

CHANG: I mean, what this really seems to be about ultimately is, can travelers who are vaccinated still transmit COVID to other people? How strong is the evidence around that?

GANDHI: You know, the evidence is getting extremely strong that you cannot transmit COVID, or it would be very rare and difficult to do, after you've been vaccinated. And actually, what the CDC was messaging is data from their own study that was published on March 29, which was of health care workers and first responders across the country. And to put it really plainly, these vaccines work incredibly well.

Before vaccination, there were 161 infections in a thousand people. And after people were vaccinated, there was one in a thousand infections - very rare. And also, asymptomatic infection was reduced by 90%. So let me just tell you, I put my 87 and 80-year-old father and mother on a plane and brought them over here two weeks after their vaccination.

CHANG: Wow. That's great. Well, should the guidance then instead be unvaccinated people should really avoid traveling? And even vaccinated people, go ahead and travel, but understand that traveling does carry some risk. Should that be the guidance from the CDC?

GANDHI: You know, the guidance - even that, the way you said it, is a little cautious. These vaccines are working so well. But there's nothing wrong with being a little cautious right now when we're in this weird transition zone. Some of us are vaccinated. Some of us are not. Cases are rising in some parts of the country. It's not in others. We are in a true transition zone, right? And that's why our messaging is so weird right now - because we're trying to say that, you know, 31.4% of Americans, go ahead and travel, you're great, and then tell everyone else to stay home. So it's very confusing.

CHANG: Yeah.

GANDHI: I would say that if you're vaccinated, feel very safe. Definitely wear masks and distance on the plane, and use that good ventilation in the plane because you want to be respectful of others. It's just pure social norm, being respectful. And if you have to travel if you're unvaccinated, use your safety precautions. There is ventilation on the plane. Use your strong mask if you need to travel if you're unvaccinated.

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CORNISH: Dr. Monica Gandhi with the University of California, San Francisco.

As more Americans get vaccinated and travel, there's a growing debate about whether or how to verify who has had a shot.

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GREG ABBOTT: We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health, and we will do so without treading on Texans' personal freedoms.

CORNISH: This week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning state agencies and other taxpayer-funded organizations from requiring proof of vaccination to do something like, say, enter a government building.

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ABBOTT: Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives.

CORNISH: But the Texas government does do that. The state's own legislature requires proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter the Senate floor or committee rooms. Also, this past week, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, signed a similar ban on vaccine certification by the government and extended it to businesses.

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RON DESANTIS: It's completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.

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CORNISH: Florida's ban is specific to COVID-19 vaccines used under the Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization. The thing is, all of them are. Of course, Florida public schools, like others across the country, do require ordinary vaccines for children. Colleges across the country do, too. And some, including Brown, Cornell and Rutgers, have already said they'll add the COVID vaccine to the list of required immunizations soon.

What's more, there are growing signs that businesses are preparing for vaccine certification. Some - Walmart, JetBlue - are testing out apps that allow customers to confirm their vaccine status. New York state just rolled out one as well. It's basically a smartphone app that allows you to share your status if you need to do so in order to enter a stadium or attend a wedding. In the public debate over these apps, they've have come to be known as vaccine passports.

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ZEKE EMANUEL: It's really not a passport to necessarily cross borders. It's a certification. It's providing information about what your status is in some area.

CORNISH: Dr. Zeke Emanuel is a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a former member of President Biden's Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. He told NPR there's a right way and a wrong way to do vaccine certification. He also spoke to Ailsa Chang.

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CHANG: Exactly why do you think that they are a good idea, this certification of your vaccine status?

EMANUEL: Well, we're all under substantial restrictions now because of COVID. If you have a passport, that allows us to get to more normal behavior. And in public health, there's a principle that you should use the least restrictive method necessary. And this allows us to say, those people who've gotten vaccinated, you don't have to adhere to certain restrictions because you are now immune. You're not likely to pass or transmit the virus.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about some of the ways that people have pushed back on this idea. A couple of Republican governors have already signed executive orders limiting or outright prohibiting the use of these so-called vaccine passports. And, you know, critics say that they have privacy concerns.

EMANUEL: I completely am sympathetic to two major objections. One is - I won't say privacy only, but it's a constellation of issues that - you want this information limited, and you want to control the information. You don't want some big tech company like Facebook to commercialize it or to merge it with other information and then use it for their advantage but not necessarily for your health. And second, I think there are legitimate concerns. Does everyone have equal access to the vaccine? Are we being fair in who's getting the vaccine, who's getting the passport? Or as we've seen, there's disproportionate availability of the vaccine in certain communities. And I think those are two quite legitimate concerns.

CHANG: The White House has already indicated that it is disinclined to mandate their use. So how useful would these vaccine passports be in opening things up if there were no mandate ultimately?

EMANUEL: The federal government may be disinclined to mandate them, but that doesn't mean that many others won't be inclined to mandate them. I think they're inevitable if only, you know, that the initial use case scenario will be international travel and maybe even some domestic travel. And I think from there, it's going to snowball, frankly.

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CORNISH: Zeke Emanuel with the University of Pennsylvania. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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