Now that vaccinations are available everywhere in the United States, and are free and sometimes linked to one million dollar lottery prizes; it’s tempting to rejoin the travel cheerleaders. Here’s a “rapid test” to determine whether COVID-19 is still a significant threat to travelers:
Will the hospitalization rates (per 100,000 people) for July in the states with the highest vaccination rates be greater than the hospitalization rates for July in the states with the lowest vaccination rates? Also, will the hospitalization rates for July 2021 will be greater than the hospitalization rates for June 2021?
If these two questions are answered ‘yes,’ we’ll have solid evidence that increased vaccination rates are essential for safe travel and that unvaxed travelers should either get vaccinated or stay home.
If increased vaccination rates are essential to safe travel, we can turn to four partial solutions that the Feds have been reluctant to undertake:
- Grant “Full Approval” for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines immediately.
- Use “digital health passes” to prove that someone is vaccinated.
- Employ more aggressive alternatives to slow the Delta Variant’s spread.
- Make domestic flights safer for those in the cabin and those on the ground.
Granting “Full Approval” for the Pfizer and Moderna Vaccines
The gurus of the FDA, CDC, and leading universities have been publicly saying that COVID-19 vaccines must remain classified as “Emergency-Use Authorizations” until more data are available. This is an example of what statisticians call “Paralysis by Analysis.” It’s usually caused by political considerations. The other possibility is that the decision-makers have withheld important information.
With 32 million doses of COVID-19 vaccinations administered in the US and 156 million people (47.5% of Americans) fully vaxed, there are ample reasons to grant Full Authorization if the adverse incidents are as few as reported. We probably passed the “One Million-People Vaccinated for at Least Six Months” milestone at least a month ago.
Using Digital Health Passes to Prove that Someone is Vaccinated
The small Broadway supper club, Feinstein’s 54 Below, has reopened in Manhattan. Situated in the basement of Club 54 in the old days, 54 Below had to overcome the doubts of everyone about reopening in its basement location. The reopening has been a huge success thanks to detailed safety plans, improved ventilation, and insisting that all guests flash their New York State Excelsior Pass (or other documentation) at the door, proving they are fully vaccinated.
What is the Excelsior Pass? It’s the new vaccine ID system developed by IBM that was recently activated throughout New York State. As of June 1, New York residents downloaded more than 1.1 million “digital health passes,” as IBM calls them. They permit anyone to transmit their vaccination and testing status from their smartphone to a restaurant, college dorm, public school, or stadium. Only the person’s name, date, and the words “Pass Valid” appear on the display monitor.
The digital health pass is free to New York State residents, which New York State calls the Excelsior Pass. IBM designed it for airports, theaters, schools, Madison Square Garden, and any other location where people must prove that they are vaccinated within a few seconds.
Once the FDC grants Full Approval to some vaccines, many more New York businesses and entertainment venues may likely rely on Excelsior Passes (or their equivalent) to permit only vaccinated persons to enter premises. Those who are exempt from vaccination for medical reasons, or because they’re too young to be vaxed, will probably need to have tested negative in the past few days, must wear masks, and may have to sit in a separate section. This is what some cruise ships are doing with guests that aren’t fully vaxed. Knowing these regulations in advance becomes a solid incentive for a guest to get vaxed or change their travel plans.
In its initial press releases, IBM said that it’s prepared to provide digital health passes to any entities that need them. Also, people won’t have to own smartphones. A hardcopy Excelsior Pass can be scanned and used with a photo ID to enter. Counterfeiting digital health passes, or preventing their use, will likely be a federal or state offense.
Employing More Aggressive Alternatives to Slow the Delta Variant’s Spread
The Delta Variant of COVID-19, which emerged in India, spreads more quickly and has more severe symptoms than any other variant thus far. NIH researchers have referred to it as “COVID on steroids.” Two strategies have emerged for dealing with it.
The most common strategy is to offer attractive incentives to get people vaxed. Los Angeles is trying another tack. They are trying to halt the spread of the Delta Variant by having everyone—vaxed and unvaxed alike—wear masks indoors in public places such as restaurants. There’s little evidence thus far that either of these approaches will succeed in bringing the Delta Variant under control.
Now that we’re approaching Joe Biden’s goal of having nearly 70% of Americans vaccinated with at least one shot, we’re primarily down to procrastinators who will avoid getting vaxed until it becomes detrimental to their lifestyle. Most are not rabid anti-vaxers. They’re merely those who haven’t made up their minds.
All that may be achieved by providing more attractive incentives are encouraging procrastinators to wait for the next offer. They are relying on the increasing number of vaccinated individuals to make COVID breakouts increasingly rare.
They don’t realize that if their neighbors or fellow workers are also unvaxed, this makes infections increasingly likely to spread to them. Delta doesn’t seem to produce serious symptoms in many people who are already vaxed. Delta is like a guided missile capable of homing in on unvaxed people on a plane or in an airport. Statistically, the chances of infecting people in an airport are more likely than infecting seatmates on a plane. This is because there are many more unvaxed people in the airport (or destination city) than on any plane.
As for the Los Angeles strategy of asking everyone to remain masked so that procrastinators can’t be singled out, I know from living in LA for more than 30 years that this strategy won’t go anywhere. Vaxed LA residents view unmasking indoors as a hard-earned right. The Health Department’s urging everyone to wear masks once again will add to the pressure on California officials to follow New York’s lead and provide digital health passes for Angelinos. Surveys show they most cities in California view digital health passes as the best solution to these thorny problems.
Making Domestic Flights Safer for Those in the Cabin and On the Ground
Breakouts caused by unvaxed air travelers are less likely to occur in Seattle, where 70% of the people 12 and over are fully vaxed, and 78% of them have had their first shot. Breakouts are also unlikely to occur in New England, where Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have more vaxed residents than in any other state.
However, these are among the most likely places to demand travel restrictions for flights that originate in largely unvaxed cities. Why should they increase the chances of their residents getting infected? It’s just not worth the risk. Since the FAA controls plane landings at airports, their likely alternative is to make it difficult and expensive to fly unvaxed.
The airlines may go along with some travel restrictions. These might include requiring proof that 95% of the fliers are vaxed, levying stiff ticket surcharges on unvaxed fliers because of the added expense, or requiring unvaxed passengers to buy COVID insurance as several cruise lines have done.
As reported in The Washington Post, the domestic airlines are now in crisis due to an excess of ticketed fliers, too many cancellations and computer outages, and too few trained staff. According to many authorities, these situations are likely to worsen over the summer; especially if digital health passes aren’t available to speed up the boarding process. TSA has projected delays up to eight hours if COVID test records must be processed manually when air travel returns to 2019 levels.
Serving only vaxed adult passengers may be the airlines’ best way out these situations, especially if this results in additional fees and efficiencies that add to their bottom lines.
This article supposes that vaccinations reduce coronavirus hospitalizations; and outbreaks will increase this summer. It also anticipates that COVID outbreaks occurred this month in some travel destinations in states where relatively few residents are fully vaxed. I sincerely hope that these assumptions are wrong.
We will know whether these predictions are valid about two weeks after the Fourth of July Weekend. Stay tuned for the findings in my August 10 column, by which time the needed data will be published. We will happily publish comments regarding your views on these matters and what you think of my predictions.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. He writes a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s read by more than 80,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.