We have entered a strange period. Two vaccines have been authorized and front line health care workers are getting vaccinated. Which by all accounts a miracle. However, thousands of Americans a day are dying from Covid-19.
But vaccines are not an off switch. It will take several months to vaccinate enough Americans to resume normal life, and this interim could prove long, confusing, and chaotic. The next six months will almost certainly bring delays in vaccine timelines, fights over vaccine priority, and questions about how immune the newly vaccinated are and how they should behave. We’ve spent 2020 adjusting to a pandemic normal, and now a strange, new period is upon us. Call it vaccine purgatory.
A great example of this is contact tracing apps. Early on in the pandemic it was thought that the widespread use of contact tracing apps along with the hard work of contact tracers could help in the effort to reduce infections. We now know that effort has largely failed. Due in no small part the overwhelming amount of infection in the country.
A month ago, I was somewhat optimistic that digital health passes would be a way forward for us to help reopen the economy as the vaccine rolls out. However, there’s a snag. At present, the only way most Americans will be able to prove their immunization status is via a paper record. David Ingram at NBC News writes:
The challenges underscore how the pandemic has laid bare the gap between what technologists hope to accomplish and the stark realities of responding to a nationwide crisis. While all states and some cities keep vaccine databases, few of them so far have been willing or able to embrace vaccine apps.
As has often been the case during the pandemic, businesses and individuals have been to fend for themselves. For example, international travel will not rebound until some system of verification can be worked out. Stephanie Baker and Tara Patel at Bloomberg write:
In the absence of government guidelines, businesses decimated by the pandemic are exploring how to use vaccines and testing to restore consumer confidence. The global airline industry, facing $157 billion in losses through next year, is leading the way with trials of competing digital apps that display test results and, soon, vaccination records.
There are plenty more fights down the road. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just ruled that businesses can require their employees to get vaccinated to help provide a safe workplace. Vimal Patel at the New York Times writes:
Businesses and employers are uniquely positioned to require large numbers of Americans who otherwise would not receive a vaccination to do so because their employment depends on it.
Absent some form of national mandate this may be the only way forward. If Americans feel like they need to get vaccinated to work, fly or go to large public gatherings, then uptake of the Covid-19 vaccines may be faster and more widespread than currently thought. Barry Ritholtz at the Big Picture made this case a couple of weeks ago. He wrote:
But second level thinking is this: Once the world sees these vaccines are safe and effective and helping to return life return to some semblance of normal, it will be increasingly difficult for the Anti-Vaxxers to keep making their false and unjustifiable claims.
America’s handling of the pandemic has been a failure on multiple levels, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.* We are going to have to hang on through more glitches, controversy and political rancor. We don’t know how long it’s going to take to traverse this tunnel or what lies on the other side, but the only way is through.
*I recognize that this phrase is already a cliche, but sometimes phrases stick for good reason.