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Opinion | Stop calling them 'vaccine passports'

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We need to stop using the phrase "vaccine passport." The term is inflammatory and divisive, and runs the real risk of triggering a lasting backlash against vaccinations.

It's also inaccurate. A passport is generally understood as a government-issued document that provides proof of the carrier's identity and citizenship. Israel's "Green Pass" is a version of a vaccine passport; it is required for entry into gyms, theaters and other designated areas, and forgery of a pass is a crime. While it has some fans, almost no one is proposing this kind of national ID for coronavirus vaccination in the United States.

Yet even the suggestion that Americans could be restricted from everyday activities is deeply upsetting to many. Rational counterarguments won't work (for example, saying some countries already require vaccinations upon entry and Americans are already limited in many activities because of covid-19). The prospect of a national tracking system smacks of Big Brother at best and fuels conspiracy theories at worst.

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Instead of stoking culture wars with an imprecise term, we should describe how proof of vaccination can be used to help us to emerge faster from the pandemic.

At the most basic level, asking for vaccination status is a kind of health screen to identify those at low risk for infecting others. There is growing evidence that getting vaccinated doesn't only protect you from becoming ill yourself; it also substantially reduces your risk of being an asymptomatic carrier who could sicken others.

Many public and private institutions already ask people to complete a pre-arrival questionnaire that screens for symptoms of covid-19. Some venues check temperatures or even administer a rapid coronavirus test before entry. Requesting proof of vaccination would be another such health screen. If questionnaires or tests aren't seen as constraints on individual liberties, showing vaccine status should not be, either.

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In addition, individuals are increasingly asking one another whether they've gotten their shots. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that fully vaccinated people can be with one another in private settings, including indoors, without masks or distancing. After a year of being isolated, many are enjoying the company of friends and family again — something they couldn't do without the reassurance of mutual vaccination.

In this way, vaccination enables activities that otherwise couldn't occur safely. Instead of being an impediment to freedom, vaccination certificates allow Americans to return to pre-pandemic life sooner.

I think it's time for us to extend the newfound normalcy from social settings to business operations. While the CDC guidance currently discourages vaccinated people from gathering in public places, this should be overridden if businesses can verify vaccination status. Imagine that you own a gym that used to have high-intensity exercise classes but had to stop because it's high risk to have lots of people breathing heavily in crowded indoor spaces. You could reopen these classes if everyone attending is guaranteed to be vaccinated. Or imagine that you run a restaurant that has had to operate at 30 percent capacity to keep distancing between tables. You could establish certain nights where you serve at 100 percent capacity, if all patrons and servers are reliably known to be vaccinated.

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Some entities are already exploring such possibilities, including cruise operators and a handful of colleges. By requiring proof of vaccination, they will aim for herd immunity on their ships and campuses. Not only could they return to full operation, but also they could probably give their customers and students something close to the pre-pandemic experience, with full interaction and possibly without the need for masks.

In these examples, vaccination isn't a government-imposed requirement but a voluntary action facilitated by the private sector. Any outcry over government overreach shouldn't focus on proof of vaccination, but rather on attempts to ban businesses from asking for it. It's the height of hypocrisy for politicians who normally tout their support for free markets to now bar the private sector from covid-safety innovations. Why can't businesses offer customers the peace of mind that comes with much-reduced risk from a potentially deadly disease?

Some have made the equity argument: How could vaccination policies be fair as long as some aren't able to get shots? I am the mother of two young children, and I know they probably won't be eligible until 2022; until then, I am happy for others to have privileges that my family can't. This isn't so different from, say, adults-only resorts: Just because some people can't enjoy them doesn't mean that no one should. In fact, the more incentives the better, because the more people vaccinated, the better we all are protected.

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Throughout the pandemic, there have been polarizing terms that trigger fierce opposition. Just as we should never have invoked "lockdowns," we need to stop debating "vaccine passports." Instead, we should define what it is that we need to move toward normalcy: a covid-19 health screen that enables people to associate with one another free from pandemic restrictions. That's a concept I hope most Americans can get behind.

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