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Some Colleges Are Mandating COVID-19 Vaccines — But At What Cost?


As vaccine eligibility begins to open up around the country to everyone 16 and older, there are new questions arising. Should it be mandatory in some settings? Should people be required to prove that they're vaccinated? NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: From cruise ships to colleges, some institutions have new policies to show proof of vaccination. When students at Cornell University return to campus for the fall semester, for example, there will be a new requirement. Here's provost Michael Kotlikoff.

MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: COVID-19 is now a preventable disease, preventable through vaccination. So we're planning to require that all of our returning students be vaccinated, with exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

AUBREY: Kotlikoff plans a town hall to discuss the policy, which he says is really not too different from requiring vaccines for, say, measles and mumps, which has long been the standard. Though COVID vaccines are new and so far have only emergency use authorization, Kotlikoff says the university has decided, from a legal standpoint, it is appropriate and defendable to require them.

KOTLIKOFF: We hope to achieve herd immunity, get to 80, 85% immunization.

AUBREY: The plan to certify or verify a student's vaccine status builds on the use of a cellphone app the university developed earlier in the pandemic which shows the timing and status of students' COVID test results.

KOTLIKOFF: We have implemented within that app the ability of students to upload their vaccination status. So as we go forward, that'll give us the information that we need to understand that we've achieved herd immunity.

AUBREY: Which he says is key to a return to normal activities in dorms and classrooms. Now, the idea of certifying a person's vaccine status has gained traction in the cruise ship industry, too. A spokesperson for Norwegian Cruise Line Holding tells NPR the company will require all guests and crew to be fully vaccinated for sailings during the relaunch planned for this summer. For now, the cruise liner will accept paper copies of passengers' vaccine cards. But what's in the works by tech companies, including IBM, is a digital version. Here's IBM's Tim Paydos.

TIM PAYDOS: The digital health pass is really nothing more than an electronic version of the index card that you get when you get your full immunization.

AUBREY: Paydos has been involved with a pilot program in New York to try out the company's digital health pass, called the Excelsior Pass. Now, lots of people have heard the term vaccine passport, but he says the health pass is more like a certification program. So say a cruise line at some point in the future did opt to use IBM's pass or some similar platform.

PAYDOS: So when you go to the cruise and you hand them your ticket or your boarding pass, they'll also ask you for some proof of vaccination. Now, you could provide them your paper card, which is going to take them a few minutes to validate, or you can just show them the QR code on your phone. They can zap that QR code. They'll get a signal that, yes, that's an authentic vaccination record from an actual credentialed, authorized health department or vaccination administrator.

AUBREY: Paydos says it's akin to voluntary airport pre-check programs like TSA PreCheck. If you choose to sign up, it puts you in the fast lane to move through security. It's unclear to what extent there will be demand for these kinds of services. And when it comes to vaccine certification, there are concerns about privacy. But Paydos says IBM does not gather personal information from the vaccine databases.

PAYDOS: All we're doing is asking that vaccine registry, in an encrypted way, says this person - have they actually been vaccinated? There is no exchange of personal information.

AUBREY: Certification programs have other obstacles to overcome, including concerns of equity and whether people will warm to the idea of sharing their vaccine status. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.