A debate is heating up over whether President Joe Biden's sweeping vaccine mandate should be extended to cover those who travel domestically by plane and train.
The president's order last week requires everyone from health care workers and federal government employees to those working at private companies with more than 100 employees, be vaccinated against COVID-19, or be frequently tested for the coronavirus. The administration says the mandate will cover about 100 million Americans, but the president stopped short of requiring vaccination for those who travel.
The recent big surge in new COVID cases — including increases in serious illness requiring hospitalization and deaths — has led to a slowdown in air travel demand in recent weeks, as even vaccinated travelers are increasingly concerned about the rapid spread of the highly contagious strain of the coronavirus.
Kurt Ebehoch is among them, admitting he was a little anxious while boarding a plane at Chicago's O'Hare airport Wednesday, as fellow passengers lined up and crowding around, without social distancing.
"Well, it's frustrating and it's nerve wrecking," Ebehoch told NPR by cell phone while scanning his boarding pass. "You do the best you can [to stay safe] and I'm vaccinated myself. I also am wearing a mask and comply with the mask rules. I bring along my own package of sanitizing wipes to wipe down the areas on the aircraft where I'll be making contact."
But Ebenhoch, who is executive director of travel consumers' group Travel Fairness Now, knows a lot of other would be travelers are staying home, because they're just not yet comfortable standing in long airport lines and squeezing into packed planes with those who may not be vaccinated.
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"We have to look at what it's going to take to get people feeling confident that they have reliable health standards, no matter where they fly, no matter what airline they fly with," he said.
The U.S. is becoming something of an outlier. Vaccines are required for air and train travel in Canada and between many countries in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Americans traveling most places abroad must be vaccinated, but not to go from city to city and state to state here.
Democratic Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia wants to change that.
"When everyone's immune you don't have to worry about transmission or variants," Beyer says. "So the Safe Travel Act simply says this: When people want to travel by airplane or Amtrak, they either have to be vaccinated or they have to be tested 72 hours ahead of time."
Beyer's introduced his legislation because he thinks President Biden's vaccine mandate just doesn't go far enough.
"What the president's done with the large employers, a hundred-plus, doesn't touch the travelers themselves," Beyer says. "You can still get an anti-vax traveler with a high virus load who can get on an airplane or a train and spread it to everyone else."
Many public health officials and infectious disease experts have been calling for a vaccine mandate for domestic travel for months, arguing it would help slow the spread of the deadly virus. And it's a position backed by the chief medical advisor to the president, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
"I would support that. If you want to get on a plane and travel, then you should be vaccinated," Fauci said in an interview on the "Skimm This" podcast.
Fauci later clarified to say that the Biden administration is not extending its vaccine mandate to travel just yet, although it is under consideration.
Airlines themselves could require passengers to be vaccinated, but Brett Snyder, who writes the Cranky Flier airline industry blog, says one airline acting on its own could backfire, because of outspoken political opposition to vaccine mandates.
"If every airline goes along with it, then that's one thing," Synder says. "But if they don't, then you're handing a fairly large portion of customers to one of your rivals."
And that's something airlines may not be able to afford to do, with demand for air travel softening and customer cancellations of travel plans on the rise.
United Airlines is one of just three carriers (Frontier and Hawaiian are the others) to require its employees to be vaccinated, but when asked recently by NPR's Ailsa Chang on All Things Considered if the airline would mandate passengers be vaccinated, CEO Scott Kirby said, "I think that mandating vaccines for passengers is really a government issue. For us to do that, we would probably require some sort of government directive."
The airline industry hasn't actually come out against a government-imposed vaccine mandate for domestic travel, but the U.S. Travel Association, which represents a broader coalition of travel dependent businesses, has.
"As far as the vaccine mandate, one, it's extraordinarily difficult to actually put in place," U.S. Travel President Roger Dow said at a news conference Wednesday.
Others in the industry say implementation of a vaccine mandate would be logistically complex and cumbersome, and raise questions about who would enforce the mandate, the airlines or the government?
Even some of those working on efforts to increase vaccinations agree a mandate for passenger rail and air travelers faces some hurdles.
"In order to get to the point where we can require vaccinations, we need to have a system in place that provide people a reliable, valid way of verifying that they've been vaccinated, and we don't have that yet," says Leonard Marcus, who as co-director of Harvard's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, consults with the White House coronavirus task force.
He and others note that paper vaccination cards can be easily forged and many of the recently developed digital "vaccine passport" apps simply use photos of those cards.
But interestingly, the airline industry and the U.S. Travel Association say they do support a vaccine mandate for international travel, as a way to boost a segment of the industry that is especially lagging.
And United CEO Kirby suggested on All Things Considered that implementing a vaccine mandate for travel wouldn't be too problematic.
"We have prepared ourselves with technology to be able to upload vaccine cards and track that and implement it if the government ever chooses to go in that direction," Kirby said.
Harvard's Marcus says President Biden's vaccine mandate for workplaces is an important first step, and requiring vaccination for travel could be next.
"I think we're right now at a turning point in this country. I think there's a lot of impatience with the fact that this is lasting so long," Marcus says. "I think people are COVID fatigued and they're looking for bold, courageous leadership that will move us out of the crisis."
If such an order doesn't come from the White House soon, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer and others hope Congress will take up his bill next month and vote to require vaccines for travel.
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