Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

In my dreams, I do not wear a mask. Despite more than a year of donning one daily for some period of time, the practice apparently hasn't seeped through to my subconscious. That seems a hopeful sign, particularly in these days when we're all singing the delta blues.

On a media panel I moderated at the ASTA Global Convention last week in Chicago, a fair amount of time was spent discussing masking and vaccine requirements. The panelists (Julia Cosgrove of Afar, CBS News' Wendy Gillette and Corina Quinn of Conde Nast Traveler) were in general agreement that more vaccine mandates are likely coming to the travel industry and that that isn't a bad thing.

But Gillette, who has been traveling internationally a fair amount, observed something that I, too, have noticed: Despite an abundance of vaccination and testing rules and requirements, in actual practice verification is very unevenly enforced. Vax cards and test results can easily be forged, yet the required documents and QR codes travelers have obtained are barely given a glance by airline personnel and immigration officers. As I've mentioned previously, even when they're uploaded prior to entry, confirmation can come quickly even if the wrong QR code is submitted.

And who can blame inspectors if they aren't paying close attention? Why should anyone take the process seriously? With the exception of the Green Certificate used for intra-Europe travel by EU residents, CommonPass and New York state's Excelsior app, which draws from state vaccination records, the veracity of most documentation is unverifiable anyway. (Like so many "verification" processes, New York City's new NYC CovidSafe app, used to enter city businesses including restaurants and theaters, merely relies on the user to upload a photo of a vax card or test results. Or, perhaps, reasonable facsimiles.)

During last year's ASTA media panel, the Wall Street Journal's Scott McCartney thought there would be a standardized approach to evaluating vaccination records or test results. He drew a parallel to the global community's reaction to airport security screening after 9/11; it did not take long for global databases of travelers and more-or-less standardized screening procedures to be instituted. Billions of dollars have been spent in the intervening years to refine the process as technology advances.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is approaching. It's easy to forget that public reaction to the new rules of travel at that time was skeptical, with media focusing on what seemed like a too-aggressive approach to confiscation. (CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg joked at the time that the TSA stood for "Takes Scissors Away.")

But the effort was, ultimately, serious and coordinated. A don't-fly list was created, but so was a trusted-traveler list. And there was, in relatively short order, acceptance of the new regimens. True, people complain about the hassles of travel, but travel nonetheless continued to grow, to the point that overtourism became a problem in the two decades following the institution of enhanced security. In reality, as with vaccine mandates, many travelers find comfort in layers of protection.

It's past time for the world to take a TSA-style approach to reducing the impact of the virus. The cost -- in human life and in its impact on global trade -- has been, and continues to be, enormous.

Still, our current approach to health documentation is akin to being able to skip airport security lines by simply presenting a piece of paper that states, "This person is not a terrorist." Without verification, who can tell whether vaccination cards or testing results come from one of a thousand legitimate issuers -- doctors, drug stores, drive-thru vaccination sites -- or a forger?

Just as with terrorism, the danger presented by the virus varies by country and region at any given moment, and one can imagine that, as with security, threat levels would be continually reassessed. Warnings would be issued and protocols adjusted accordingly. The intensity of traveler scrutiny might well depend upon where one is traveling to and from. But by using a threat-assessment approach coupled with verified individual health status, one could avoid outright country travel bans. Verifiably trusted travelers, regardless of citizenship, should be let in.

All of this can only occur if the U.S. and the EU lead the way. I don't believe that, as after 9/11, a new federal agency would need to be created, but the TSA, with its experience in traveler screening, and the Department of Health and Human Services, with its understanding of health data, could coordinate with leading private health passport initiatives such as CommonPass, which are currently working on interoperable networks with true verification.

We cannot wait for the world to be fully vaccinated, and the promise of herd immunity is slipping away. I don't yet wear masks in my dreams, but we're all living a recurring nightmare, the type that frustrates dreamers from getting where they want to go. It's time to wake up and get to work. 

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