“It’s embarrassing, but it’s not illegal”: tips for asking your doctor, dentist or hairdresser if they are vaccinated

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is even advising those vaccinated to revert to wearing masks in indoor public spaces located in areas with the highest rates of coronavirus infections. These tips – sparked by concerns about the fast-spreading delta variant – can cause many people to worry about going to indoor places where social distancing is not possible, such as a doctor’s office or spa. especially if they have to remove their masks.

In these situations, they might wonder if they can ask the potentially loaded question: “Are you vaccinated?” “

“Not only do they have the legal right, but I think they have an obligation for their own health and safety to ask the question,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Georgetown University Global Health Law. . “It is a very appropriate and logical question to ask if anyone is going to be in very close personal contact with you: if they have been vaccinated. “

It is not a violation of the oft-cited HIPAA federal privacy law to ask your doctor or dentist or other healthcare workers, as well as people who provide close contact services. , including hairdressers, estheticians, massage therapists and physical trainers, if vaccinated. In many situations, at least from a legal standpoint, “you can ask for whatever you want,” Gostin said. But, he added, it’s important to remember that “you can’t force someone to respond.”

Given the divided views on coronavirus vaccines, combined with widespread confusion over health and privacy laws, it’s no surprise that many people feel uncertain about how to approach the disease. question, experts said.

“We are navigating a kind of new label as well as new ethics in that context,” said Ruth Faden, professor at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s possible to sort of reason our way through what seems ethically acceptable and what looks problematic.”

Here are some tips to help you learn about a person’s immunization status.

HIPAA includes provisions to protect a person’s identifying health information from being shared without their knowledge and consent, but it’s not a ban on asking, experts said. In addition, the law only applies to specific health-related entities, such as insurers, health care clearinghouses, health care providers and their associates. It would, for example, be a violation of HIPAA law if your doctor or insurance company did not obtain your consent before sharing your immunization status with someone else.

Likewise, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, noted in a guide that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to maintain the confidentiality of employee medical information, including if they have received a coronavirus vaccine. This means that, in most cases, an employer who is asked if certain employees are vaccinated cannot answer that question.

But just because an employer can’t disclose information doesn’t mean you’re prohibited from asking people directly for their immunization status, said Robert Gatter, professor at the Center for Health Law Studies at St. Louis University. School of Law. “It’s embarrassing, but it’s not illegal,” Gatter said. “If they share it with you, it’s their choice.”

Gostin agreed. “It is absolutely legal and ethical and understandable from a deeply human perspective to want to know if the person who comes into close contact with you is vaccinated.

There are also legal – as well as ethical – reasons respondents, especially medical professionals, should answer honestly, the experts said. People, regardless of their profession, could face legal consequences if they lie about their vaccine status and then infect others with the coronavirus, Gostin said.

Although the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics does not specify whether physicians have a responsibility to disclose personal health information to their patients, it does emphasize the importance of honesty.

All healthcare professionals “have an obligation as part of their responsibilities to advance the interests of their patients and also to engage honestly and honestly with their patients when the information requested is instrumental and useful to the patient”, Faden mentioned.

It’s best to contact people before any appointment to voice your concerns, Gatter said. It is good to say, for example, that you have been vaccinated and you would not feel comfortable coming into close contact with an unvaccinated or unmasked person. Then, he said, you can learn about the security policies in place, such as vaccination and masking requirements, and how they are enforced. Gatter also encouraged employers to educate employees on how they plan to answer these questions and, ideally, to obtain workers’ consent to publicly disclose general information about vaccination rates among staff or to ensure that clients will not have contact with unvaccinated people.

As noted above, you can always ask a person directly for their immunization status, Gatter said. Be prepared to receive versions of the following answers, he said, “Yes”, “No” or “I don’t want to tell you. “

It may be helpful, Faden suggested, to share your immunization status first. When people disclose things about themselves, others often respond in the same way, she said. If someone doesn’t reciprocate uninvited, “I still think it’s quite appropriate to say, ‘Would you agree to tell me whether you’ve been vaccinated or not? “

If the person replies that they are uncomfortable sharing their immunization status, “I think you can’t push any further,” said Faden. But Gostin said it’s okay not to be satisfied with no response. “It’s basically not a polite response, but it still doesn’t respond,” he said.

In this situation, you will have to make a judgment on how you want to proceed, the experts said. You may feel comfortable continuing to see the person as long as other safety protocols are in place. But, experts pointed out, you have no legal or ethical obligation to keep your date. “If the person fails to provide the information, the patient or client may refuse to be treated and seek treatment from another provider,” Gostin said.

If a person responds that they are vaccinated, you should also consider whether they are telling the truth. While you can ask to see proof of vaccination, such as the vaccination card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts have cautioned against doing so as it may suggest mistrust, which can be detrimental to the relationship.

“Usually I assume that most people are good faith people,” Faden said. “If they aren’t vaccinated they might not share it, but I don’t think most people are going to lie in that context.”

Conversations about immunization status can be tricky and it is important to be respectful.

Ask your questions politely and put them in the context of personal safety concerns, Gostin said. It goes both ways: People who are asked the question, especially healthcare workers, “should not be harmed by the question as if it was an inappropriate question,” he said. “They should be compassionate.”

It’s not okay to become belligerent, hostile, or personally offensive if someone chooses not to tell you if they’ve been vaccinated, Faden said. But if you decide you aren’t comfortable being in close contact with someone without knowing their immunization status, you need to be transparent about it and explain why you will no longer seek their services, Faden said. .

“I don’t think it’s great to just disappear,” she said, adding: “Just because someone decided not to get the vaccine doesn’t mean they’ve given up on their claim. to decency in human interaction. “

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