Vaccine talk: things you can, should and definitely should not talk about, according to experts

Is it okay to ask someone about their vaccination status? Moreover, what do you do with that information once you know the answer?

These questions are becoming more prevalent in our society as vaccination rates increase in some parts of the country, and public health guidelines around how fully vaccinated people can interact continue to evolve.

Without much guidance, people are left to their own devices to figure it out. So, CityNews has asked two experts in their field on how to navigate these turbulent times with grace.

Here’s what they had to say:

Should you or can you ask someone about their vaccine status if you’re planning a social event?

Kerry Bowman, professor at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto says, “absolutely.”

While it is a personal health question, and could be considered off limits for that reason, Bowman said a social gathering, especially at a private home is fair game when it comes to finding out someone’s vaccine status.

“I think you have every right in the world, in advance, to … put on the invitation, ‘fully vaccinated.’ And that would avoid these kinds of questions. I mean, some people could dodge the question or lie, but it really is still a personal question, but it’s got implications for all of us.”

In a general, do you have to disclose or should you tell others, if you’ve been vaccinated?

No, says Bowman, but as he explains there is no easy answer here, since your personal health information does have implications for others’ well-being. “I do find most people are willing (to offer) their vaccination status pretty easily.”

He also adds that clearer guidelines are needed from all levels of government about what interactions are allowed for fully vaccinated people.

“They’ve kind of pushed these very difficult kind of social questions back onto all of us as to how we should interact with each other and what should we say and what should we ask? And I really think, in fairness to us all, we need a lot more direction from our public health leadership.”

Are you being ethically negligible if you’re not vaccinated and withhold that information?

“If you’re not vaccinated at all and you withhold the information or choose not to say it and you’re interacting with social groups of people, you are putting other people at risk,” says Bowman. “There’s definitely ethical concern with that. There’s no question about it. There is ethical implications because you may put others at some risk by doing that.”

Should you stay away from watercooler “vaccine talk” in the workplace?

Jon Pinkus, who is a partner at Samfiru Tumarkin law firm in Toronto says “talking vaccines” at work will depend on what sector you’re employed in and the overall messaging from your employers, owners of a company, and managers around vaccinations in general.

“There are still a lot of people who have very strong views one way or the other about vaccines. And as an employee, if you happen to have a strong view, for example, against vaccines, particularly if you’re in the health care field, I think there is certainly nothing wrong with expressing your reservations in a courteous and civil matter. But if you’re going to be undermining your employer and if you’re going to be speaking publicly about it in a way that undermines your employer and you do so in a disrespectful way, then that can be problematic. I say as a general rule, if you can avoid talking about it as an employee, that’s probably a good rule of thumb.

Is it okay for employers to ask you to get vaccinated?

“I see nothing wrong with an employer encouraging their employees to get vaccinated,” says Pinkus. “But that’s about as far as an employer should go in most cases. Unless you are in a long-term care scenario where you have that legal requirement that they be advised, that’s about as far as they can go. Just encouraging.”

Can employers make it mandatory for employees to be vaccinated?

Pinkus says it’s unlikely, unless it’s in an already-mandated health care setting. “For the time being, unless the government steps in and says all workplaces have to be immunized, which may be coming, unless that happens, it’s not really going to be in the employer’s discretion to say ‘get vaccinated or you lose your job because of that.’ He adds that can’t be grounds for dismissal because that can be a human rights violation in certain cases.

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