The 1 question you should never ask others about their COVID-19 vaccine

Rachel Grumman Bender
·5 min read

Chances are, you've seen some co-workers, family members or friends posting on social media about getting the COVID-19 vaccine — and likely cheered them on from afar. But if you're one of the many still patiently waiting to become eligible for the vaccine and see that a seemingly healthy friend or co-worker around your age or younger gets vaccinated before you do, it may be tempting to ask, "How were you able to get it before me?" But experts say, in general, it's better to keep that question to yourself.

There are several reasons why someone may get vaccinated earlier than you'd expect, including because of where they live. States across the country are in different phases of the vaccine rollout right now. For example, if you’re a healthy 55-year-old without a high-risk health condition, you’re eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Connecticut but not in California. But experts say that it's not always obvious what makes an individual eligible to receive the vaccine — and understandably, they may not want to broadcast why they qualify.

"Many of my patients have cancer, have had an organ transplanted — both of which can cause immune system problems — or have some other problem with their immune system," Dr. Anne Liu, infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Life. "Most of them do not look outwardly ill and don't wear signs broadcasting their underlying condition. Some of them work full-time or part-time, work in frontline positions and take care of their families. A kidney transplant patient might be scanning your groceries. Pregnancy is also a qualifying condition in some counties, and early pregnancy is not outwardly apparent. Type 2 diabetes is very common in adults, and people with this condition usually just look like anyone else."

It's possible that someone you've worked with for years or even a friend never shared that they have an underlying health condition, which makes them eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine — and experts say that, in general, we shouldn't ask how someone was able to get vaccinated. "Sometimes people are asking others how they got the vaccine to see if they themselves might learn of a way to get it, but it can come across other ways, too," says Liu.

As Janet Malek, associate professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine, puts it: "People should have a right to privacy regarding their health. People may prefer to keep their medical information confidential for a variety of reasons, including concerns about discrimination, stigma or how others may view them if they know. Others just prefer not to share too much about themselves. These can be sensitive issues and that inquiring about how someone qualified for vaccination may violate some personal boundaries."

Although Liu says there isn’t "data right now on how often someone who doesn't meet current eligibility criteria skips the line to get the vaccine," she's heard stories of "young, healthy people who do not have frontline jobs getting vaccines." Liu adds: "I think those stories will become more common as each county continuously updates guidance on who is eligible for the vaccine." Malek also tells Yahoo Life there are "many examples of people getting vaccines who aren't qualified under federal or state guidelines," adding: "There are also good reasons to create a culture in which people are held accountable for acting ethically by waiting their turn for the vaccine."

However, both experts agree that doesn’t necessarily mean someone ineligible has skipped the line. "Counties where there is more vaccine available per person will have different rules than populous counties where there might be a tighter supply," explains Liu. "In addition, we can't assume that a person is healthy without underlying conditions just because we don't know otherwise."

Malek agrees, saying, "Sometimes this is because vaccination sites have leftover doses, but it is also because there are people at those sites that aren’t enforcing [the eligibility requirements]. It seems that much of the system is based on individuals being honest about their health status and that doesn’t always work."

So if it seems like a co-worker or friend has skipped the line, should you call them out? That depends. "I think it is ethically acceptable in most cases, but may not be the best approach socially," says Malek. "If you know someone well who is signing up [and] is not qualified, I think it is appropriate to ask them about their reasoning for going ahead. But that has the potential to cause a rift in that relationship. And if you don't know the person well enough, it could come across as an overly personal or invasive question."

Liu suggests not judging others — especially in light of the fact that every person (eligible or not) who gets vaccinated may also help protect you from COVID-19, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Even as people are eagerly awaiting their turn to get the vaccine, we should not make the mistake of spending a lot of energy on judging whether others are deserving of the vaccine before us," says Liu. "The goal is to get every willing adult vaccinated in the next few months. To do that, the system needs to be designed to make vaccination as easy as possible for those who are eligible, minimizing the barriers to vaccination as can be done reasonably."

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