Is It OK to Ask Health Care Providers if They’re Vaccinated?

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on navigating a world in which vaccination against Covid-19 is both common and contested.

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

Recently, I asked my chiropractor if he had received his Covid vaccine. He said no. He and his assistant do wear masks, but they see patients in a small room with a closed door. When I asked him again several weeks later, he said: “Well, we have to talk. I am not going to get the vaccination. I don’t believe in vaccinations. My family and I are all healthy and see no need for it.” On my way out, I asked his assistant if she had been vaccinated, and she replied: “No, and I don’t plan to. It’s a personal decision.” I called the next morning to explain that I wouldn’t be coming back to their practice because they weren’t vaccinated. Later that day, the chiropractor called and asked me if I would please respect his privacy and not tell anyone else about his decision not to be vaccinated.

I was appalled. Isn’t this an unethical request? He is a health care provider during a pandemic. Shouldn’t his patients be aware that he has chosen not to get a vaccine, as recommended by the C.D.C.? Doesn’t his personal decision affect others in a potentially dangerous way? By asking me to hide his decision, doesn’t he make me an accomplice to his duplicity? Name Withheld

A number of questions have recently arisen about how we should negotiate a social and professional world in which vaccination against Covid-19 is both common and contested. What’s clear is that many people think that getting vaccinated is simply about protecting yourself. And we do have what a philosopher would call a reason of prudence for getting vaccinated — a reason that’s more compelling the older we are. Yet there’s also a public-spirited, altruistic reason for getting vaccinated: There’s now bountiful evidence that vaccinated people are much less likely to transmit the virus to others.

When masks were first recommended, medical authorities emphasized their benefits not to the wearer but to others; only after some months, and additional studies, was it made plain that masks helped both parties. It’s the opposite story with vaccines. Vaccine approval depended on trials designed to show benefits to recipients, so officials were at first hesitant to say what now is clear: that they help others too. The broader point is one I’ve made before: When many people accept a small inconvenience — like wearing a mask or getting vaccinated — we can achieve something of great value to us all.

Getting vaccinated is more than a good idea. It’s an act of civic responsibility.

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