Can I Ask Co-Workers if They’ve Had the Covid Vaccine?

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on why asking about vaccine status isn’t a question of etiquette but of public health.

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

My employer, a large university, recently instructed us in an email titled “Vaccine Etiquette” not to ask fellow employees if they are vaccinated. I feel I have an interest in knowing this information for two reasons: First, the C.D.C. offers different guidelines for the vaccinated and unvaccinated. So I need this information to know which guidelines to follow. Second, if we are engaging in behavior that creates risk (e.g., breathing in an enclosed space), I have an interest in knowing what the risks are, in the same way that before having sex with someone I have a cognizable interest in knowing their S.T.D. status. Most people would not consider asking a person their S.T.D. status rude when both parties are engaging in potentially risky behavior. Why is this different?

Do I have an ethical right to ask about vaccine status, even if it’s “rude”? Name Withheld

Given that our country has had roughly 600,000 pandemic deaths, I wonder whether “etiquette” is the most apposite term here. Use your flatware from the outside in; hold the door open for the person behind you — such is the usual remit of etiquette. But when public-health officials devise and promulgate guidelines that involve public health, they do not consult Amy Vanderbilt. As you note, the C.D.C.’s behavioral guidelines vary with people’s vaccination status. If someone may be increasing your risk of illness, you’re entitled to know. And if you’re entitled to know, you’re entitled to ask.

People, of course, may decline to answer, in which case it would be reasonable to assume that they have not been vaccinated. (Despite the claims of a certain Georgia congresswoman, I should add, HIPAA has no bearing on what you or your employer can ask; it restricts disclosures made by health care providers and insurers.) Getting vaccinated makes a person much less likely to transmit the virus, but if such transmission does occur, those most vulnerable to infection are the unvaccinated. So asking about someone’s status would show consideration for that person too. And of course, colleagues who are open with one another about their vaccination status are probably getting on better than those who aren’t.

Our vaccination status, with its bearing on our likelihood to contract and transmit infection, isn’t a private fact about our health — and its disclosure isn’t a mere matter of etiquette.

If your university doesn’t require vaccination for in-person presence, it shouldn’t be allowing indoor meetings that don’t involve masks, good ventilation and social distancing. The overall risks to the vaccinated may be small, but you’ll want to take account of the dangers to your elderly relatives, say, or to people in your circle who are medically vulnerable, or simply to your unvaccinated colleagues.

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