American Airlines planes taxi at Miami International Airport in Miami on June 16, 2021.
America is at a COVID-19 crossroads. For the first time since the highly effective vaccines became widely available in the spring, the new case rate is back on the rise due to the spread of the more contagious delta variant and the stalled effort to vaccinate people in many parts of the country.
According to medical experts, reaching herd immunity will require that 70% to 90% of the U.S. population be fully vaccinated. But despite having enough vaccines available to inoculate every eligible American age 12 and up, just under 50% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
Worse, at the current vaccination rate of roughly 500,000 per day, it will take nine more months to cover just 75% of the population. This would give dangerous and more contagious COVID variants a chance to gain a foothold and perpetuate the pandemic.
Contain COVID at transportation hubs
President Joe Biden and COVID czar Jeff Zients deserve tremendous credit for making the COVID-19 vaccines widely available and bringing focus and discipline to the White House pandemic dysfunction they inherited from former President Donald Trump. But a reliance on incentives and awareness can only get us so far, especially when some irresponsible politicians have been stoking vaccine skepticism and outright hostility.
To get to herd immunity within a reasonable time frame, the Biden administration is going to need to add to its arsenal some targeted vaccine mandates — and the obvious first step is to require proof of vaccination when embarking on an airplane.
According to a number of legal experts, the president has the authority – from laws establishing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the Commerce Clause of the Constitution – to require all airlines to ask ticket holders to provide proof of full vaccination.
Nurse fills syringe with COVID-19 vaccine in New York on July 16, 2021.
By disrupting the spread of COVID-19 at transportation hubs where individuals gather and connect to other geographic regions, and by creating another incentive for adult vaccination, an airline vaccine requirement would help bring the pandemic to an end.
No doubt even a targeted mandate for airline passengers will stoke the outrage machine at Fox News and other right-wing propaganda outlets. Republicans eager for Trump’s favor and anti-vaxxers can be expected to decry any vaccine requirement as an attack on Americans’ basic “freedoms.”
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Nowhere in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights will conservatives find a right to infect others with a deadly disease. In addition to defending our civil liberties, government is responsible for promoting the general welfare and protecting citizens from harm. No rational person considers requiring a license to drive a car or fly a plane a form of tyranny.
Citizens have responsibilities, too – to each other, their communities and their country. In times of war and other national emergencies, Americans have always proved willing to sacrifice their private interests and pursuits for the common good. Amid a resurgence of COVID-19 and pervasive vaccine hesitancy, we face just such an emergency today.
Treading cautiously isn’t working
That’s why it is deeply unpatriotic for anti-vaxxers to feed the public misinformation about the efficacy and safety of vaccines. It’s also reckless. More than 99% of people dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
President Biden would be on solid ground in invoking the principle of mutual responsibility as a counter to the right’s strangely anti-social conception of freedom. A vaccine requirement for air passengers wouldn’t force anyone to get vaccinated; it would leave them to choose whether refusing the vaccine is more important to them than being able to fly.
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In purely legal terms, the Biden administration is well within its authority to protect the health and safety of passengers and citizens. Politically, the president and the COVID-19 vaccines are already under attack by extremists, and this will only get worse should cases rise again and we see the return of mask mandates, such as the one just reinstated in Los Angeles County.
The debate over vaccinations is polarized, and the Biden administration has been right to tread cautiously. But if the best we can do under our current strategy is less than what we need for herd immunity, then reasonable, targeted mandates will be needed in order to end the pandemic and ensure the health and safety of all Americans.
Paul Weinstein Jr. is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and directs the M.A. program in public management at Johns Hopkins University. Will Marshall (@Will_PPI) is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Require vaccination proof for air travel to curb COVID, boost immunity