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Restricting Air Travel Would Encourage COVID-19 Vaccinations, Expert Says


President Obama's former assistant secretary for homeland security Juliette Kayyem was in the business of protecting the United States. Recently, Kayyem wrote a piece for The Atlantic in which she argues that when it comes to flying, vaccinated people should no longer carry the burden for unvaccinated people. At this point, she says, it's time to restrict unvaccinated passengers from boarding flights. Our colleague Noel King spoke to her.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: I have heard a lot of different attitudes about this particular idea. And I have a vivid memory of someone saying, I don't want to get the vaccine right now, but if I had to get it in order to get on a plane, I would do it. Can you make the argument for flights being non-negotiable?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Yes. And the reason why is because we have to begin to assert burdens on those who are choosing not to be vaccinated. What we're finding is that while there are headstrong unvaccinated and, of course, the anti-vaxxers, many of the unvaccinated just need a nudge to get their shot. And so airline travel, if they want to see their family at the holidays, is one area that we should begin to look at.

KING: There is a large group that says, I am an American with a valid ID; I have a credit card. I can afford a flight to Los Angeles to go see my family for the holidays. The government telling me what I have to do with my body before I can get on a flight that I can pay for is big government at its worst.

KAYYEM: Yeah, yeah. Well, welcome to reality. The other times that you went on an airplane...

KING: (Laughter).

KAYYEM: ...I mean, come on. I mean, you're giving up your name, your number. I mean, you're giving up your birthday. You're having X-rays go through your system. You can't drink your water. You can't smoke if you're still doing that. The government sets all sorts of regulations for safety and security. We already live in that world. And this is just an additional requirement. Think of what the government can do as simply setting the floor for appropriate conduct. You can do whatever you want. You can not get the vaccine. You can choose to go over the speed limit. But there will be consequences for that. And putting a requirement for vaccination for the privilege - because that's what it is, flying or getting from point A to point B - is consistent with all sorts of other safety floors that the federal government has done across almost every aspect of your life.

KING: And I gather you'd make that same argument to someone who says, I don't want to have to carry a vaccine passport, for example. It's my personal medical history.

KAYYEM: I think there's this notion of freedom that has animated the unvaccinated, or at least the defense of the unvaccinated. And so I want to be clear here. People are still free to say no. This is not someone grabbing you on the corner and sticking a needle in your arm. You can still have those freedoms that people are talking about. But the unvaccinated now must know there is a cost, a cost that can't just be borne by the vaccinated. I come from disaster management, and what we learn is that a good response isn't often doing the same thing over and over again; it's actually thinking about course corrections. What can we do now that we've hit a vaccination wall?

KING: All right. Let me ask you about a last group of people. I can imagine...


KING: ...Airline CEOs and executives and some of their thousands and thousands of employees thinking...


KING: ...If we do this, if we make this demand, it will mean fewer people flying, and we are having enough problems in this economy. This is bad for American businesses.

KAYYEM: Right. So the proposal would be, put that deadline out far enough in advance - so October and November with the holidays coming up - put the proposal to have vaccination requirements. And why can the federal government do this? So, first of all, let's just start from the facts. We're about 20% down on domestic airline travel right now, so the industry is not back up to normal. How do you fill that void? Well, part of it is to get people more comfortable about moving around. Now, no airline has decided on its own that it would, you know, demand vaccination requirements. United is the first airline to demand it of its workforce. And the reason why is because if you have too many sick pilots or flight attendants, you actually would impact the ability of planes to take off.

So the business decision now is, will I benefit more from more people being vaccinated in terms of the bottom line, rather than try to plow my way through another wave? And maybe it's good that I'm not a doctor - right? - I mean, in the sense that, you know, we've been hearing for months and months, you know, follow the science, follow the science. And I get that. And I followed the science. But, you know, at some stage, we just have to look at it and go, look; we're sort of done with pretty please and people's feelings and how they feel about freedom and how they feel about liberty. You know, the vaccinated have feelings, too. Right? The health professionals facing another now avoidable breakdown of our health care capacity have feelings. Our kids who can't get the vaccine have feelings, too. All I know is that the virus has no feelings, and it could care less about ours.

KING: You make the point that you're not a doctor, but you did spend some years in government.


KING: How likely do you think it is this is going to happen?

KAYYEM: It is hard to know what the airlines exactly want. Sometimes industries actually want government to act so that they don't have to make the decision. I think they see the politics of what's going on, and they just - they don't want to play in it. But certainly, this is something that the federal government could do and it could do far enough in advance that it doesn't impact us today. It gives people the right to weigh the consequences, but would certainly impact holiday travel, which they're all worried about. Look; if we have delta uncontrolled leading into October and November, speaking for a mother of three, I'm not entirely convinced I would get on an airplane to go see family.

KING: Juliette, thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

KAYYEM: Thank you so much.

KING: Juliette Kayyem is a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Obama and is now the faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLIFE'S "DEEP FOREST SESSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.