COVID: Don’t Punish a War-weary Public

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, For more than a year, Americans have lived under what can accurately be called wartime austerity, suffering widespread deprivation and restriction of their liberties in the name of fighting a deadly invader, COVID-19.

Americans are war-weary, and with victory in sight, now is not the time to ask for one more imposition – vaccine passports.

We might never be able to estimate the full cost of the COVID-19 battle. As in other wars, rationing was imposed, with state and local governments strictly limiting everyone’s access to friends, family and even fun. Social distancing rules were mandated, and limits were put on the size of weddings, funerals, and other private gatherings. Treasured public assemblies such as festivals, concerts, graduation ceremonies and sports events were summarily prohibited.

Some people suffered even greater deprivation, with their jobs gone, or businesses built over a lifetime destroyed along with their financial security. The number of drug overdose deaths, which had abated somewhat prior to the pandemic, actually exceeded the old record. The toll in depression, anxiety, suicide and other mental-health effects might be incalculable. Who knows how many marriages and families have shattered under the emotional and financial pressures of lockdowns?

But the end is in sight. Already, a third of Americans have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and projections see that number reaching 75 percent in May. At the current rate, everyone over 18 who wants the vaccine is expected to have at least one dose by sometime in June. Surveys show that 5 out of 6 Americans want the vaccine.

So why, with such good news, are some proposing to impose yet another restriction on Americans, one that will take away from some the liberty they still possess? Right now, people who are unvaccinated can go to the grocery store, travel on airlines, and eat in restaurants, as long as they maintain social distance and wear a mask.

But when proof of vaccination is required to access these services, many will be excluded, including those who have declined vaccination on religious grounds. This requirement also will pressure people to accept vaccination despite the fact that this decision is intended to be voluntary.

Requiring vaccine passports also reneges on an implicit promise made to Americans a year ago, when lockdown restrictions were initially imposed: “We need to do these harsh and painful things to slow the spread of the virus until a vaccine is developed. After we have the vaccine, life can return to normal.”

Breaking this promise will simply bolster the public distrust engendered by a year of less-than-stellar messaging about the COVID response.

I can remember way, way back to a year ago, when we were told that we shouldn’t wear masks because they wouldn’t protect us, and they might even make use more susceptible to the virus. Then, suddenly masks were good, and not only good, but mandatory. And finally, there was a brief effort in January to persuade us that wearing two masks was better than one.

We saw a lone surfer busted for violating stay-at-home orders, even though the chance of catching or spreading the virus on the empty ocean was nil.

We saw lockdown orders that said patrons could shop in the food aisles of their local store, but shopping in the gardening supplies aisle was too dangerous to allow.

Then there was the hypocrisy of prominent officeholders in other states who imposed or supported draconian COVID measures on the public, only to be caught flouting those measures themselves.

This is not a great track record. Now, with the promised vaccines being rapidly administered to millions,  and Americans anticipating fewer restrictions, it is not the time to impose more of them.

Public health experts are experts in public health.  But there is more here than public health.  There is tension between the best response from a public health point of view and other critically important areas–mental health, economic health, socialization and education of children and yes, liberty.   When everyone who wants a vaccination has one, the danger from the unvaccinated is dramatically reduced–not to zero to be sure, but to a point low enough that it does not justify further interference with civil society.

For this war, on the eve of victory, vaccine passports are a bridge too far.