I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for all U.S. adults to become eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine starting April 19.
“That doesn’t mean they will get it that day,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified. “It means they can join the line.”
The White House said there will be enough supply to cover every American adult by the end of May, although it will take longer to administer those shots. As of this week, 33% of people in the U.S. have received at least one COVID-19 shot. About 19% are fully vaccinated.
As more people get vaccinated, talk turns to how this changes life. Can we travel? Will graduations go back to normal? Will vaccines be required to return to work? I reached out to our USA TODAY experts for answers.
The answers: Carefully, not likely and possibly.
First, a note of caution from health reporter Adrianna Rodriguez.
“Currently, pandemic life doesn’t change much for the vaccinated individual,” she said. “Health officials continue to recommend mask-wearing and social distancing in public settings such as gyms and grocery stores. They advise against any mass gatherings that may leave little room to socially distance.”
Why? Health officials still want vaccinated Americans to keep wearing masks in public, Rodriguez said, because although there’s data suggesting they’re unlikely to carry the virus and transmit it to unvaccinated people, it’s not definitive yet.
The good news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is safe to get together with other vaccinated people indoors.
When it comes to travel, there is a patchwork of requirements, said travel editor Julia Thompson. Domestic airlines and theme parks are not requiring vaccinations, though there has been talk about ‘vaccine passports.’
Currently, there is no widespread “vaccine passport,” meaning proof of vaccine for entry, though limited efforts are underway. Other groups are proposing “digital health passes” that show proof of a negative coronavirus test or vaccine for entry.A travel pass from an airline industry group is being tested among 22 international airlines that would allow travelers to verify that their test or vaccination meets their destination’s requirements and share test or vaccination certificates with authorities.
The Biden administration has said the government should not be involved in issuing any vaccine certification, but any such system should be free, private and secure.
“Therefore we’d better do it right,” Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise. Frieden is a former director of the CDC.
By “right,” they said, he means a secure, accurate and voluntary system, where the government doesn’t keep track of who is vaccinated and who is not, “so that people aren’t tempted to not get vaccinated because they don’t want this thing,” he said. “It should never become a disincentive to get vaccinated.”
And vaccine or health passes go well beyond travel. New York launched a first-in-the-nation certification last month, called the Excelsior Pass, for proof of vaccination at large-scale venues like Madison Square Garden. The pass will be accepted at dozens of event, arts and entertainment venues statewide.
The CDC said Americans who are fully vaccinated can resume travel at low risk to themselves, but the agency still does not recommend travel given rising coronavirus case counts.
“But plenty of travelers have already boarded planes or taken road trips without the CDC’s blessing,” said travel reporter Dawn Gilbertson. “In March, passenger counts at U.S. airports topped 1 million a day every day but five … something that hasn’t happened in over a year.”
And vaccinated travelers still must abide by a CDC order requiring a negative coronavirus test to board international flights to the United States, and they should get another test three to five days after returning.
Some international destinations have opened or are opening to vaccinated travelers, including Greece, Belize, Iceland, Seychelles, Croatia and some others. The European Union is still not allowing travelers from the U.S.
Thompson said some cruise lines have announced vaccine requirements, including Norwegian, which will require vaccines across all its ships for passengers and crew, and Royal Caribbean, for some sailings.
“Travelers should be prepared to be flexible,” Thompson said. “Read all the fine print while booking, research destination travel requirements and be prepared to encounter crowds, as many people are itching to take trips again.”
Broader access to vaccines could also mean the return of camps and in-person summer school.
States and school districts are putting together summer plans to help kids who have fallen behind during remote learning.
For example, in Florida, education reporter Erin Richards found, Palm Beach County public school leaders say almost 52,000 of their 170,000 students need significantly more help in reading and math after a year of mostly remote learning. The district plans to spend an additional $8 million on summer support, more than triple what it spent before.
In higher education, changes will be seen this fall, reports higher education writer Chris Quintana. The greater availability of vaccines has prompted some colleges, including Rutgers and Cornell, to require the vaccine for students who want to study in person.
As for this spring’s graduations, there is public pressure to go big as in pre-pandemic days, but graduation ceremonies will likely still be curtailed, have a virtual component and may have limits on the number of people who participate.
Vaccines get us closer to returning to office life in some ways, said business reporter Nathan Bomey. But employers are rethinking whether they need as much space, and many will consider hybrid arrangements where employees work part of the week from the office and part from home.
How much say to workers have in this?
Bomey said that without the protection of unions or contracts that stipulate what happens in this situation, American workers largely can’t resist employers who require them to return to the workplace.
“But from a practical perspective,” he said, “employers have a vested interest in maintaining a happy workforce, so many will be loath to make people return before they’re ready.”
And can employers require vaccines?
In general, legal experts say, employers can require COVID-19 vaccines, Bomey said. The law allows them to do so as long as they provide certain exceptions, but even those can be quite limited.
“That said, we don’t expect many employers to require vaccines anytime soon,” he said. “Availability would have to be widespread. In addition, there is a very legitimate fear that issuing mandates could backfire, causing people to further resist vaccination and thus extending the pandemic.”
Vaccines are certainly giving our beleaguered country hope.
But we still have to be cautious.
“No vaccine is perfect, and with high-circulating virus, everyone remains at least a little vulnerable,” Weintraub said. “Hopefully, as more people are vaccinated, infection rates will come down, making it safer for everyone. President Biden has set the July 4 holiday as a target for this.
“Behavior in the meantime – how many people neglect cautions and get infected, and therefore how widely the variants spread – will determine whether this date is realistic.”
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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.