Catholic University Law Review


During the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, the federal government adopted a more centralized approach to the collection of public health data. Although the states previously had controlled the storage of vaccination information, the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed plan required the reporting of recipients’ personal information on the grounds that it was needed to monitor the safety of novel vaccines and ensure correct administration of their multi-dose regimens.

Over the course of the pandemic response, this more centralized federal approach to data collection added a new dimension to pre-existing vaccination hesitancy. Requirements that recipients furnish individual information deterred vaccination among undocumented immigrants already fearful about the Trump Administration’s data-driven immigration enforcement policies—even as undocumented essential workers faced enhanced risks of COVID-19 exposure. Disputes with some states over the federal government’s proposed terms of governance for individual vaccination information compounded delays in the reporting of necessary public health information. Moreover, as the pandemic response evolved, the Biden Administration was obliged to counter apprehension among the broader public that federally-stored information might be used to enforce vaccination mandates or adoption of digital “vaccination passports.”

Notwithstanding calls for greater federal authority to directly gather data in future epidemics, I argue that the goal of achieving broad public vaccination uptake will be better served by preserving and improving a federalist approach that generally leaves the states to control the collection and storage of individually identifiable vaccination information. I contend that the lessons of COVID-19 suggest that more robust governance and technological controls for federal access to state public health data—coupled with improved transparency about the limits of federal data use—can both ameliorate public hesitancy and improve inter-governmental exchange.