The United States is in the middle of another COVID-19 surge, and there’s no mystery as to why. Now that a majority of eligible American adults are vaccinated against the virus, social distancing, mask requirements, and other pandemic safety measures in each state have been steadily reduced. But America has not achieved the level of public vaccination that would provide “herd immunity” to the virus—that is, a level of vaccination high enough that transmission of the virus through communities largely ceases due to a lack of infection targets—and so that return to unmasked “normal” has had dire consequences for Americans who are still unvaccinated. Among the vaccinated, pandemic infections remain low. Among the unvaccinated, including children too young for the vaccine, the new “delta” variant is spreading through unmasked communities like wildfire.
There are only two possible solutions to the new surge: Either the vast majority of Americans need to get vaccinated—and quickly—or widespread shutdowns need to again occur to prevent regional hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with new patients. (A third solution preferred by conservative Republicans—in which we allow the pandemic to take its course, with each citizen deciding for themselves whether they will or will not infect those around them and accepting widespread deaths as the necessary price—is too malevolent to take seriously.)
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom today announced the state’s new attempt to address the crisis: Every one of the state’s quarter million-plus state employees will have to choose. State employees will be required to either show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly for COVID-19 infection.
You don’t have to be vaccinated. But if you want to keep your job, you’re going to have to continuously prove you’re not a danger to your coworkers.
This tradeoff between requiring vaccinations or requiring proof of your negative COVID-19 status is likely going to spread, because the status quo isn’t going to be tenable. If the pandemic is spreading almost entirely among the unvaccinated, then the unvaccinated are either going to have to go into lockdown (again) or abide by other safety measures that can prevent infection. Also in California, a group of several hundred San Francisco bar owners are announcing that customers wanting to enter their businesses will either have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. That mandate may spread to more city businesses, and the city itself is contemplating similar moves.
Within the federal government, the Department of Veterans Affairs will be requiring 115,000 front-line health workers to be vaccinated in an effort to protect patients.
These new vaccination mandates aren’t happening in a vacuum. Vaccination rates among public workers continue to be deplorable in some regions, contributing to pandemic spread. Both governments and private businesses are getting fed up with a surge that didn’t have to happen, resulting in more blunt warnings to workers than have been given in the past. The NFL has warned that if unvaccinated players result in an outbreak that requires the cancellation of a game, the team with the outbreak will be pinned as forfeiting the game. That puts the safety onus on the willfully unvaccinated: You don’t have to get a free vaccine that may save your life or the life of someone around you, but if you take the risk and your decision screws your entire team out of a playoff berth, then that’s going to be between you, the rest of your team, and every one of your irritated fans.
It is not likely that the United States will return to widespread public shutdowns, at least not unless the winter surge threatens to become even more catastrophic than the current one. There is no stomach for it; the places where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly now are the places where public or official contempt for safety measures resulted in lax measures to begin with. That means the next stage of the pandemic may require limiting where the unvaccinated can visit—or work—even as vaccinated Americans face far fewer restrictions.
Yep. Vaccine “passports” may be the government- and business-preferred way out of this new mess. It didn’t have to happen, but it was either widespread vaccination or … this.