Coronavirus FAQ: Am I Legally (And Ethically) Bound To Say If I Got A COVID Vaccine?

May 7, 2021
Originally published on May 10, 2021 11:29 am

Each week, we answer "frequently asked questions" about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

I'm vaccinated? Do I need to tell everyone who asks my status?

In a word: No.

Legally, a vaccinated person is not required to share that information with everyone who asks, says Jennifer Piatt, an attorney and research scholar at the Center for Public Health Law and Policy Health. "Information may be deeply personal for some people, and they may choose not to share that information openly."

There is no legal requirement that individuals must disclose their vaccination status publicly, Piatt says, or to all interested persons. "An individual can set [their] own boundaries with respect to what information they are comfortable sharing with others."

That said, says Piatt, vaccination information may be required in certain situations. For example, schools require information about childhood vaccinations for public safety purposes. In addition, employers generally may be able to ask about vaccine status for safety and planning purposes, barring contrary state or local laws.

The law, however, is still evolving on this issue. "Earlier this month, the governor of Texas issued an executive order stating that government agencies, along with private businesses and institutions that receive state funding, cannot require proof of vaccination from the public," notes David Farber, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of law firm King & Spalding, who specializes in Food and Drug Administration and life sciences law.

Farber adds that Florida's governor also signed an order stating that such passports "reduce individual freedom" and "would create two classes of citizens." He believes that "time will tell how the law settles out on this important question."

Jennifer Piatt points out that if you're asked "why haven't you had a vaccine yet." your answer could run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It would be a violation of the act because, if you have a disability such as an immune system disorder that prevents you from taking the vaccine, the question would in effect be asking you to disclose a disability.

One important clarification, says Piatt, is the role of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). HIPAA prevents health-care providers from sharing protected health information but does not play any role in dictating whether an individual shares (or does not disclose) their own medical information – including vaccination status.

What are the ethical ramifications of withholding or misrepresenting your vaccine status? My dad lives in a Middle Eastern country and he won't tell his peers he's been inoculated because of local beliefs that the vaccine is somehow harmful.

Nancy Berlinger, research scholar at The Hastings Center, an ethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y., says it is unethical to say or imply you have been vaccinated when you haven't been. This is deception that puts others at risk of harm.

But what about the other type of deception: a vaccinated person who won't reveal their status? Berlinger says it's ethically problematic (not clearly wrong but not clearly right either) to say or imply that you haven't been vaccinated when you have been: "This is also deception, which is disrespectful and corrosive, but because you are vaccinated, you're unlikely to harm others through transmission."

Berlinger says a person may have valid personal reasons for concealing the fact that they are vaccinated. Maybe they're part of a family or community that is currently skeptical of vaccination, and they're worried about pushback.

But many physicians on the front lines of caring for COVID-19 patients hope that the vaccinated will share that information with friends and family on the fence.

"For some people, it will help others around them if they talk about their own vaccination experiences — why they chose to be vaccinated and how they felt afterward — to demystify the experience and to normalize vaccination," says Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. "Some may not want to share this experience. Some may want to share it only with certain family members or coworkers and not others. I hope more will share their experiences so as to encourage others to be vaccinated, but everyone needs to decide their own comfort level."

And even though it's always an individual decision, some physicians are big advocates of status sharing. "Absolutely divulge. Peoples' behaviors affect one another," says Richard Seidman, chief medical officer for L.A. Care Health Plan, a health plan that serves over two million low-income members in Los Angeles.

Amesh Adalja, senior scholar for the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has treated COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic, agrees. "If your life is in danger, or you think you will be harmed if you disclose your vaccine status, I wouldn't disclose it," says Adalja. "Short of that, it is something to brag about."

Fran Kritz is a health policy reporter based in Washington, D.C., who has contributed to The Washington Post and Kaiser Health News. Find her on Twitter: @fkritz

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