"That is just another one of the requirements that I think is reasonable to consider," Fauci told MSNBC, while refusing to divulge whether he has made that recommendation to President Joe Biden. "You know, there's requirements that you might want to get if you want to get into college, or you want to go to a university, or you want to work in certain places. When you make vaccination a requirement, that's another incentive to get more people vaccinated. If you want to do that with domestic flights, I think that's something that seriously should be considered."
This is not new territory for the country's most visible public health official. "I would support that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people, that you should be vaccinated," Fauci said in September. But that was before the more infectious omicron variant, and before vaccines had been authorized for kids between ages 5 and 11. Biden had just announced a vaccine mandate on private sector employers, but it had not yet been snagged in the courts.
Asked by ABC News on December 23 about a vaccine passport for air travel, the president said, "It's been considered but the recommendation I've gotten, it's not necessary….Even with omicron. That's the recommendation I got so far from the team."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, when pressed on the issue on December 22, said that, "We know that masking can be, is, very effective on airplanes," and that "we also know that putting in place that additional restriction might delay flights, might have additional implications."
But, like Biden and Fauci, Psaki kept the door open, in case the medical advisory team changed its mind: "We would do it, though, if the health impact was overwhelming. So we rely always on the advice of our health and medical experts. That isn't a step at this point that they had determined we need to take."
The positive health impact of barring the 70 million or so non-fully-vaccinated Americans ages 5 and older from air travel is likely to be closer to marginal than overwhelming. Airplane trips thus far during the pandemic have been almost preternaturally safe from COVID spread. Existing vaccine mandates, meanwhile, have failed to move the needle on vaccination rates.
In fact, as Reason's Christian Britschgi pointed out in October, discouraging comparatively safe air travel makes people more likely to use far more dangerous automobiles, a substitution that had measurably negative effects after the post-9/11 security measures adopted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
"The added hassle the agency's pre-flight security screenings added to air travel encouraged people to substitute driving for flying, resulting in an estimated additional 500 auto deaths per year after 9/11," Britschgi wrote. "That almost certainly outweighed whatever terrorism-caused deaths the TSA's security screenings prevented."
Such cost-benefit analyses are extremely unlikely to move the types of people who favor strenuous pandemic restrictions. Many (mostly Democratic) politicians, public health officials, and voters have a visceral anger toward the minority of Americans who have yet to avail themselves of the lifesaving vaccines. The punishment of the refuseniks is the point.
"To put it simply, if you have been living vaccine-free, your time is up," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted on December 21, when unveiling new vaccine passport requirements for indoor activity in the Windy City. "If you wish to live life as w/the ease to do the things you love, you must be vax'd. This health order may pose an inconvenience to the unvaccinated, and in fact it is inconvenient by design."
In an excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday, David R. Henderson and Charles L. Hooper pointed out that, when it comes to pandemic policy, "If we accept that the difference between choice and coercion is insignificant, we will be led easily to advocate policies that require a large amount of coercion." So it is with restrictions on movement between the states, an activity that has historically been considered a constitutionally guaranteed right.
"We know the only way to protect flying in this country is to mandate vaccines. So why are we waiting to do it? I mean, I just don't get it," an exasperated University of Washington epidemiologist Ali Mokdad told CNN Monday. "Why wait if we want to have safe travel and we want to visit and we want to rebuild our economy, why are we sending mixed messages to the public? I mean, that's what really blows my mind as a public health professional."
The notion that air travel is not currently safe rests entirely on the hunch that omicron is ripping through airplane cabins in ways that the delta variant and original strain never did. (Ventilation on planes has been particularly effective in blocking aerosol spread.) This is of course possible—omicron is contagious to a level not previously encountered, so previous understandings may be out of date.
But the variant also thus far seems less lethal, particularly for the vast majority of Americans who have elected to receive vaccine protection. In a masked environment, with excellent ventilation, using a mode of mass travel that was as safe as it gets prior to omicron, some people who are protected from most serious illness by vaccines are declaring that not knowing the vaccination status of their fellow passengers makes them feel unsafe. I feel genuinely sorry about their anxiety, but I don't think that should be the basis for federal pandemic policy.
A vaccine requirement for domestic travel would almost certainly necessitate the creation of a single national vaccine database, a task carrying significant I.T. challenges and civil libertarian concerns. As Psaki pointed out, it would likely produce even more delays and unintended negative consequences to an already stressed system, which helps explain why airline companies have been opposed to the idea. It would also likely increase the already heightened level of social conflict that has been seen with airlines trying to enforce federal masking policy in high-stress environments.
But after 21 months of the kinds of government intrusions into private behavior that would have been dismissed within living memory as implausibly draconian, I would not bet against the internal vaccine passport. The United States already requires vaccination, plus a recent negative COVID test, on every inbound international traveler. Residents and businesses of New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and several cities besides, have been subject to heavy vaccine requirements. In places that Democrats control, the battle between choice and coercion usually has a clear winner.
There were 369 million domestic passenger trips in the annus horribilis of 2020 (I accounted for maybe 12 of them). The number of those passengers fully vaccinated? Zero. And yet the flights were safe.
CNN put a funny sort of headline on its piece about vax passports: "Are vaccine mandates for domestic flights our ticket out of the pandemic?" Good Lord, people, at least be honest with yourselves. The airplane requirement won't even get the masks off, just as pediatric vaccines did nothing for removing cloths off young faces in blue states. There is no logical endpoint to where restrictionism will take us, except the limits of our own tolerance for marginalizing others and inconveniencing ourselves in the name of unproven science. If you don't like Fauci's trial balloon, I suggest you reach for a needle.