With coronavirus infections surging again, the biggest question people may have during their everyday interactions with others is “Are you vaccinated for COVID-19?”
But what’s the best way to ask a hairdresser, daycare provider, doctor and other professionals, and is it even appropriate?
Experts say it’s perfectly sensible to inquire.
“It's completely appropriate to ask that question, otherwise you're going blindly into a situation that may be quite high risk for you,” Seth Chandler, co-director of the Health Law & Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center in Texas, told TODAY.
“Yes, it's awkward, but it's an awkwardness that's imposed on us by the current state of the virus and the lack of uniformity in policy on getting vaccinated.”
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People may worry about whether it’s rude or even legal to ask, and how to pose the question politely. Here’s what the experts said:
Is it legal to ask someone about their vaccination status?
“You have the legal right to do that, yes. You can ask,” said Stacie Kershner, associate director of the Center for Law, Health & Society at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
“It’s not a HIPAA violation to ask someone… that doesn't mean they're required to answer.”
The privacy rule of HIPAA — which stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — is really misunderstood, Kershner noted. Its scope is “incredibly narrow” and applies only to health care providers, health insurance plans and health clearinghouses, she added.
A HIPAA violation would be if your doctor told other people about your vaccination status without your permission, Chandler said, but it's not a HIPAA violation for you to ask someone directly or to voluntarily disclose that information about yourself.
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One more note on legality: Employers have to keep all medical information in employment records confidential under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kershner said, which covers companies with 15 or more workers. So asking the owner of a big salon whether a specific hairdresser is vaccinated wouldn’t work, but you can ask that hairdresser directly.
Again, people are not obligated to answer. However, if someone is vague or declines to respond, “I think you have the right to make an assumption that they're not vaccinated, and then you can decide: Do I want to take the risk or not?” Chandler said.
Is it rude to ask someone about their vaccination status?
No, said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert, founder of The Protocol School of Texas and author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life.”
“On the contrary, I think that it's perfectly understandable and acceptable… it's responsible even,” Gottsman noted. “We're asking an honest question. We're doing it for the health of ourselves and our family members.”
She suggested asking well in advance of your appointment with a dentist, hair dresser or manicurist, either by phone, email or text, because if you just show up and find out the person is not vaccinated, you have to decide on the spot whether to stay or leave.
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How to ask politely:
Gottsman recommended the following language:
For a doctor’s or dentist’s office: “I'm assuming that you're vaccinated and everybody in your office is vaccinated.” Phrase it as an assumption that allows the person to answer, though “it would be hard to believe at this stage that a medical professional would not be vaccinated,” Gottsman said.
For a hair or nail salon: “I'm assuming since you're working with so many people, you're protecting yourself and you've been vaccinated” or “I want to make sure we're on the same page. I'm being very conscientious about vaccinations for myself and my family. Have you gotten the vaccination?” or “Before I see you next Thursday, I just want to make sure you're vaccinated. This is really important to me.”
For daycare providers or teachers: “Thank you so much for taking care of our children. Vaccinations are very important to my family and I would like to know: Are you vaccinated? Are you requiring vaccinations and has everybody been vaccinated?”
In all cases, it may be easier if you mention your vaccination status upfront as a conversation starter, allowing people to respond with their own status.
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Be prepared for a little awkwardness
Chandler, who will be seeing a new dentist and physical therapist this week, called their offices and simply asked if the people who’d be treating him were vaccinated. Both offices “cheerfully answered ‘yes,’” he reported.
“I did feel a little awkward asking,” he said. “But it's a question of the times and people have to summon up the courage to buck some social conventions if they want to maximize their safety.”
“We're going to have to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable,” Gottsman added. “We're trying to collect facts so we can make informed decisions.”
More tips to consider:
All of the experts said they would trust a person’s answer and not push to see their COVID-19 vaccine card. Don’t push in general and consider that someone’s vague reply or a non-answer is probably an answer — disengage and decide on whether you want to keep the appointment.
If not, be ready to say, “I'm sorry. I'm not comfortable with you cutting my hair or watching my kids” and step away in a polite and respectful manner, Kershner said.
It’s fine to cancel a visit if you’re uncomfortable with an unvaccinated person, Gottsman said.
In the end, there may be too much at stake for people not to ask. Hospitals in some states are facing an “onslaught” of coronavirus cases, but more than 40% of Americans who are 12 or older are still not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Certainly in the past, I haven't asked my hair person whether they've received a flu shot or not,” Chandler noted. “What's different is that COVID-19 is a much more serious disease than the flu… and I'm going to protect myself.”