Is it ethical to ask about COVID vaccine status?

Digital Exclusives
Melissa Balanon

FILE – A dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at Lurie Children’s hospital, Nov. 5, 2021, in Chicago. The omicron-fueled surge that is sending COVID-19 cases rocketing in the U.S. is putting children in the hospital in close to record numbers, and experts lament that most of the youngsters are not vaccinated. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

(ABC4) – Imagine you see a trolley barreling towards five people who are unable to move from the tracks. Luckily, you’re standing next to a lever that can change the path of the speeding vehicle. But unfortunately, there’s one person tied to the alternative track. What is the right thing to do?

This question, nicknamed “the trolley problem,” is a classic ethical dilemma that has puzzled noted philosophers and college freshmen alike. Though it might seem annoying or pointless to think about this imaginary scenario, the purpose of considering such queries is to prepare us for real-life moral questions that will similarly challenge us.

As a society, we’ve been bombarded by ethical questions over the course of the pandemic. People have debated whether it was OK to socialize between households during the period of intense quarantine. And along the same lines, we’ve considered whether it’s better for an elderly or immunocompromised family member to spend the holidays alone, or whether it’s better to be together, even though it might open them up to a potentially life-threatening illness.

But now that the United States has opened up again and vaccines are widely available, we’ve created a new ethical question.

Is it OK to ask someone their vaccine status?

And like most ethical problems, there isn’t a clear answer to this one, either.

According to Aaron Miller, an associate teaching professor at the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at Brigham Young University, answering this query varies based on values and context.

“We have a hard time coming up with a bright-line rule for these situations,” he says, using a legal term that means ‘a clear, simple, and objective standard.’ “The reason we don’t have a clear, bright-line rule there is because the context matters. The competing values in a given situation are going to change from one relationship to the next and from one setting to the next.”

For example, asking a coworker their vaccination status is different from asking a close friend, which is also different from asking someone you are newly dating. Brad Agle, who is a professor of Ethics and Leadership at BYU, says that it’s important to weigh your social capital before inquiring about vaccination status. That is, your prior relationship with the person and the nature of your association will be a good indication of the appropriate action.

“It certainly would have a lot to do with the type of relationship you already have with that individual,” he says. “There are certain coworkers that I can ask all kinds of things because we already have some level of social capital and that would manage to get us through that difficult situation. Others of my coworkers, I don’t have that same social capital built up over time and so that might ruin a relationship really quickly by asking a question like that,”

Handling this question at an institutional level is a bit different, too. According to Kimberley Shoaf, a professor of public health at the University of Utah, employers might request to know an employee’s vaccination status because of their legal responsibilities to protect their workers, acknowledging that people have many different reasons for opting out of the vaccines.

She also notes that, on an institutional level, it is much easier to keep the information private than it would be in a more interpersonal context.

“I do have legal responsibilities for protecting my workers and so I need to know everyone’s vaccine status,” Shoaf says. “Now, that doesn’t mean I can share that with everybody. If they say that they’re not vaccinated, that doesn’t mean that I can shame them or share that with their colleagues.”

And in addition to determining whether or not you want to ask about vaccine status, like most ethical questions, this one ultimately comes back to values.

Miller notes that, especially in the United States, we value individualism and personal rights to privacy.

“Particularly in the United States, we see privacy as a default value,” he says. “It’s embedded in the Constitution, so I think there’s a widely shared, ethical value of that.”

Although most Americans can agree on the importance of personal privacy, this gets tricky, Miller says, when this value comes into conflict with other competing values such as – in this case – public health.  

Agle references social contract theory, an age-old philosophy principle that, in his words, encapsulates people’s “duties toward one another” in a society. In employing this understanding, people can justify asking about vaccine status in that it affects not only the individual in question but those they come into contact with.

But Agle says it’s not either/or, but rather a balance between these two values that will lead us to the most ethical choice. He notes that, while everyone should ethically have rights to their own bodies and what they do with them, those rights end where another person’s body begins.

“To the extent that your being close to me is not going to affect me, I really don’t have a right to ask about your vaccine status,” he says. “On the other hand, you are going to be in proximity to me, and your rights may very well infringe on my rights.”

But even if you do decide to ask – and under what ethical grounds you do so – the guidelines for questioning, and responding ethically to whatever answer you get, are not quite as much of a gray area.

Miller says that kindness and respect are essential in this interaction.

“It always works better when you can be collaborating with the person to solve the dilemma in front of you rather than drawing a line in the sand and making it your way or the highway,” he says. “I think that, at a fundamental level, treating people with respect and kindness as a baseline is also an important strategy.”  

So, much like the trolley problem, we’ve found ourselves with another unanswerable question. Whether college freshmen will be debating this one for years to come, however, remains to be seen.

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