Although I haven’t seen my friends in over a year, we’ve been in touch nearly every day of the pandemic. Yes, we were all wearing masks. No, we weren’t going out to eat. Yes, we planned to take the shot. No, we weren’t gonna skip the line. Yes, we’ve finally been vaccinated.
Whenever we do get together — and quite honestly we don’t know when that will be — we know that we’ve done all we could not to put ourselves or our loved ones at risk.
But now with the city on the verge of reopening, my bubble is about to expand beyond my close friends to acquaintances and friends of friends. And as we rush to reconnect — real talk — I want to know people’s vaccination status.
I know. I know. I’m being overly cautious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings to protect against COVID-19. And although the vaccines are more than 90% effective, I’m still feeling nervous. I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want to make someone else sick. The more people who are vaccinated, the better chance we have to stop the virus’ spread and mutation. The only way I’m going to feel comfortable socializing in intimate settings is if my peeps are vaccinated.
Is it ethical to ask if someone is vaccinated?
That would be a hard no, says Sally Scholz, chair and professor of philosophy at Villanova University. Although COVID-19 discussions feel as commonplace as discussing cinnamon rolls in the office kitchen, they’re not the same. This is a medical issue and, ethically, it’s never OK to ask someone about their health status; in essence, you are asking someone to divulge sensitive information about their medical history that they may be uncomfortable sharing. Think of it like asking someone if they are pregnant: It’s just not a good look. “People have a wide variety of reasons for getting the vaccine or not getting the vaccine,” Scholz said. “And none of that is our business.”
But you may decide to ask anyway, said Robert I. Field, a professor of law and health management policy at Drexel University. The bottom line is that people who aren’t vaccinated can still pose a threat even if you are vaccinated. But they may choose not to answer; that’s their choice. “It may be socially inappropriate, but there is more of a compelling need if it’s a potential health threat like an infectious disease,” Field said. “You may fear that if an unvaccinated person accompanies you into a restaurant, then they can be a threat to other people and you don’t want to be a party to that.”
Is asking someone about their vaccination status a HIPAA violation?
No, because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act doesn’t apply here. The act prevents a third party (like a doctor or an insurance company) from giving your private health information without your permission.
But what if I’m willing to share my vaccination status? Can I then I ask?
Ethically speaking, the answer is still no, Scholz said. But sharing your story is not a violation of privacy and there is a very good chance the person you tell will reciprocate, she said. In fact, Scholz says, if you are inviting someone out socially, it’s just a good practice to volunteer it. “It’s important that we convey a sense of safety,” Scholz said. “A willing vulnerability, that wherever you are on your vaccination journey, that you are OK and that you have done all that you can to protect yourself and others.” If your potential lunch date volunteers their vaccination information, problem solved. And if they don’t, you can choose a rendezvous point that’s outside.
And if they do answer, there is always the chance that they could be lying. And determining the truth can be delicate, Field said. “It’s up to you how far you dig,” Field said. Would you make your friend produce a card? You have to decide what you want the tone of the relationship to be going forward, Field said. Think of it this way: If you were getting into a car with someone, you might ask someone if they have a license, but you wouldn’t necessarily demand to see it, but that is an option if it helps your peace of mind.
What if I’m the one being invited out?
This is a trickier situation. If your friend suggests a restaurant, ask them if there is outdoor seating. That might prompt them to be transparent about their vaccine situation, Scholz said. If they don’t pick up the hint, and insist on indoor options, you might be more comfortable declining the offer. “This is where public health ethics and social ethics are converging,” Scholz said. “We feel an obligation to meet people halfway. But right now public health ethics trumps social ethics.” So while it might not be OK to ask them if they’ve been vaccinated, it’s not rude to turn the invitation down if you don’t feel you have adequate information to make a decision that’s in the best interest of your health.
This is where public health ethics and social ethics are converging.
What if my friend tells me they are an anti-vaxxer?
Philosophical differences about the vaccine can be just as detrimental as ideological differences about the economy, national politics, and religion, Scholz said. We have a few options: We can treat the vaccine the same way we do politics at the Thanksgiving table. Don’t talk about it. And if you feel unsafe around that problem, default to keeping your interactions virtual.
“The problem with that dictum,” Scholz said, “is there is an acknowledgment that people you see around the Thanksgiving table are people you see once a year and aren’t the close friends with whom you are trying to reconnect.” So, Scholz said, not being able to discuss things that really matter to you — like how we have fared during the pandemic — will feel inauthentic.
If this is really bothering you, you can always put the friendship on hiatus until you feel comfortable that the threat has been further mitigated. But if you really value this friendship, you should make it a point to “communicate carefully, gracefully, and clearly about your feelings,” Scholz said. After the pandemic ends, there may come a day when you will miss your friend.