Only a year ago, Grace Murray was afraid to leave her New York apartment.
It was the beginning of the pandemic and the city was in the throes of its first wave of COVID-19.
A field hospital had been erected in Central Park, while a naval hospital ship was deployed to Manhattan. Stories of bodies piling up in mass graves and freezers made headlines around the world.
“I remember thinking this is the worst possible place we could be,” Murray said.
Twelve months later, the 31-year-old is now fully vaccinated and starting to feel hopeful again — perhaps months ahead of her peers and parents back home in Australia.
She got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 7th as part of New York’s age-based vaccine rollout. The city has vaccinated more than 43 per cent of its residents with at least one vaccine, according to the New York State Department of Health, and daily case counts have been falling after peaking in January.
“It’s like the war is over,” Murray said. “It feels like we’ve all made it through something.”
But while getting the vaccine has changed many things, it hasn’t shifted the hurdles of getting home to Australia. Travel caps, infrequent flights and mandatory hotel quarantine make coming home an expensive and time-consuming exercise, even for people who are fully vaccinated.
News of Murray’s rapid inoculation came as a shock to her parents in Newcastle, NSW, she said — and they still don’t know when they’ll be getting the jab.
She’d like to be able to come back and see them this year, but the Australian government is still working out how to deal with returning vaccinated citizens and whether a so-called “vaccine passport” could be an option.
How vaccine passports are changing travel
With delays in Australia’s vaccine rollout, the goal of herd immunity has been postponed, and it is unlikely borders will be reopened and mandatory quarantine scrapped without the help of so-called vaccine passports or certificates.
Other jurisdictions around the world are under pressure from business and tourism sectors to facilitate the safe movement of people again.
For instance, the New York Times is reporting of a travel agreement between the European Union and United States, which would allow visitors with government-issued vaccine certificates to holiday in either place.
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is currently trialling its solution — a Travel Pass — with Qantas and Air New Zealand in the Trans-Tasman bubble.
The Australian Border Force and Department of Health, which would weigh in on Australia’s adoption of the technology, say they’re monitoring the mass study, which includes other airlines and destinations.
Decisions about using the technology would also need to consider what vaccines Australia would recognise from which countries.
Other global research on how well vaccines are working in COVID-affected countries may also shape policy on how Australia deals with vaccinated travellers flying in from overseas.
“If favourable data on vaccination continues to be published over time, this may trigger a decision as to whether there should be a scale back of other public health interventions,” a health department spokesperson told ABC News.
A small town COVID cluster
The Canadian ski village of Whistler is famous for its mountains and all-seasons outdoor lifestyle.
In January this year it also became known for its catastrophic outbreak of the P1 or Brazilian variant.
Jesslyn Gates, originally from Perth in WA, was one of more than 1,500 people who tested positive for the infectious variant at the ski resort.
“Most people that I know here have had it,” she said. “It’s so common, once you wake up with certain symptoms, it’s the first thing you suspect.”
Gates, aged 31, received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in early April — the day after she recovered from the virus.
She’s ecstatic to have been given the jab so early (even if it’s because she was living and working in a “COVID hotspot”) and says she doesn’t know anyone who’s been vaccinated back home — not even her grandmother.
But while Canada is in the grips of a third wave of the virus driven by imported variants, Gates has no plans to return to Western Australia.
Even if she wanted to go home she isn’t confident her vaccination status would help given the recent lockdown situation, and is instead focusing on the possibility of a relatively COVID-free summer in B.C.
“We’ve been living in a COVID world for so long,” Gates said. “If things do get back to normal here I’m going to be really grateful that I’ve come out the other side.”
‘We’re all vaccinated’
In the worldwide race to get populations vaccinated, Israel is ahead of the pack.
More than 80 per cent of the country’s adults are vaccinated, including Australian expat Sarah Vanunu, who lives in Tel-Aviv with her three school-aged children.
The 38-year-old from Sydney has already had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine as part of Israel’s mass rollout.
When appointments opened a few months ago, Vanunu says pretty much everybody she knew signed up. After her first shot in February, she received SMS reminders about her second injection, which was administered last month.
The mass vaccinations have meant schools, restaurants and even travel bubbles in the region have opened. But Vanunu says she still can’t get home to see her family, because of the huge financial cost of returning and time required in quarantine.
“I think there is a unique experience for Australians living abroad. Because even if we wanted to go home, we still can’t.”
The Department of Health has made it clear travel caps and mandatory hotel quarantine are needed to protect Australians from the virus.
But for Vanunu, a family reunion back home seems to hinge on the success of Australia’s vaccination rollout. Living in a country that’s leading the world on vaccinations only takes you so far, when your home country is still so far behind, she says.
“It doesn’t help if I can’t fly home to visit my family.”