Vaccine Passports and Travel

Vaccine passport….two words that mean completely different things depending on which side of the COVID vax debate you place yourself. If you are vaccinated the vax passport means opening doors, but if you are unvaccinated it means having those same doors slammed shut in your face. And before anybody gives me a hard time about sharing “personal” info on this blog because I posted a picture of my CDC COVID card, the only personal information on it is my birthday. Facebook reminds the world of that factoid every year. And as I noted in my prior post, I don’t use the lot numbers from my COVID vax in any of my passwords…sorry to disappoint.

My purpose in writing this article is not to change anyone’s mind on whether or not they should get vaccinated against COVID. Everybody has staked out their positions on the subject and nothing I say is going to change any minds. Obviously I am vaxed. My point here is to lay out the current state of play when it comes to COVID vaccinations, COVID testing, and COVID restrictions in the context of discretionary leisure travel.

The COVID “passport” isn’t so much a thing as it is a policy, and in this country we don’t have anything close to a coherent national policy regarding the use of a COVID vaccine passport.  We have the beginnings of one, for better or worse, with the President’s recent Executive Order requiring COVID vaccination in the workplace. But when it comes to access to public venues like bars and restaurants, it is up to the states. Only four states…California, New York, Oregon, and Hawaii…are using residents’ COVID vax status to limit their access to varying degrees to public venues. Meanwhile, 20 states either have legislation or executive orders against the use of anything resembling a COVID passport. The other 26 states either haven’t decided, don’t care, or are too careful to step a toe into that politically charged minefield, though private businesses in those states are imposing their own COVID driven restrictions.

We do have a set of national level COVID policies impacting travel that are based on guidance and requirements from the CDC. If you want to use commercial or public transportation in any form, whether that be a bus, train, or plane, you must wear a mask. If you want to take a cruise, at least 95% of the people on each cruise ship departing from a U.S. port must show proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID. If you want to travel outside of this country, you must show a negative COVID test report as a condition for being allowed back into this country. Those are all national policies that carry federal penalties for failure to comply, though I think everyone can agree enforcement is uneven at best.

When it comes to international travel things are better defined. You can’t enter another country without complying fully with that country’s entry requirements. For just about all countries that means showing a passport at your first point of entry. For some countries it also means getting a Visa, and for a few countries it used to mean showing certification from a World Health Organization approved immunization center that you have been vaccinated against locally endemic diseases such as Yellow Fever, usually in the form of the “yellow shot record.” The oldest vaccinations on my yellow shot record, the original vaccine passport, date back to the early 1960s with my measles, DPT, polio and smallpox vaccinations. Yellow fever, cholera, and hepatitis were added later. So vax passports aren’t new…they go way back, and we’ve lived with them and the restrictions they’ve been used to enforce just fine.

You don’t need to get jabbed as many times as I have to travel…you get the vaccinations you need based on the countries you want to visit. The list of countries requiring proof of vaccination against anything used to be very short, but since COVID it has grown quite long and it continues to grow. It doesn’t matter what your personal feelings are about vaccinations in general or the COVID vax in particular…if you want to travel to a growing number of countries, being fully vaccinated against COVID is a condition for entry. That includes much of the Caribbean and most of Europe, with the exception of Croatia and Greece but even they have other restrictions. For many countries you have to show a recent negative COVID test as well. Some countries offer unvaccinated visitors the option to quarantine between 5-14 days and then get tested, but who wants to spend their vacation time in quarantine? Many Asian nations remain closed entirely to tourists regardless of vaccination status. Mexico and the Dominican Republic are about the only popular vacation destinations U.S. travelers can visit with virtually no restrictions…you don’t even need to get a COVID test to get in. But you do need one to come home and that has been problematic for many unvaccinated Americans.

Travel is difficult for the unvaccinated. Even if you find a country that will let you visit without a lengthy period of quarantine, you are likely to face additional restrictions, and the rules are constantly changing. The destination you booked a few months ago that had a permissive environment for unvaccinated visitors at the time may be imposing a long list of restrictions requiring proof of COVID vax today, even while they still allow unvaccinated visitors into the country. And what do you do if the COVID test you are required to get prior to your return to the U.S. comes back positive? I’ll cover that in another article but that alone is reason not to travel if you feel strongly about remaining unvaccinated. And while the current travel environment may feel restrictive for the unvaccinated, it isn’t a forever thing.

We will not defeat COVID. I’ve never thought we would. It will eventually be an endemic disease which means we have to learn to live with it. Not just as Americans, but as a global community. And we will. Until then, we have to learn to live in this uncomfortable “between” space we find ourselves where the disease is more lethal now than it will be in a few years’ time, yet more of us want to pretend that we are already there when we aren’t. That’s really all COVID vaccination passports are about…allowing us space to begin getting our lives back to normal with the fewest COVID deaths possible.

Make your travel plans! We can travel, and for the vaccinated it is a relatively low risk activity, though you should still check with your doctor and take into account your personal risk tolerance. COVID is something we all have to live with, but you don’t have to let it keep you home. We’ll help you ensure you travel responsibly and thoughtfully, protecting your health as well as that of the citizens you encounter at the destinations you visit.

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