By Nora Gustafson, J.D.
COVID-19 vaccines have generated worldwide optimism and fostered expectations for a slow but steady return to normal. And rightfully so, as they’re powerful tools that—along with face masks, hand washing, and social distancing—can help control the virus. But in addition to a shot of positivity, vaccines provide a fresh challenge for employers.
One such challenge is evidenced by calls coming into HR organizations. With increasing frequency, people are asking "Should I reveal my employees’ vaccination status to patients?"
A growing number of dental-office patients are inquiring about employee vaccinations prior to scheduling new appointments. And others are questioning staff individually during their office visits.
If you haven’t already received this request, it’s probably coming down the pipe. The best time to formulate an answer is before you receive the inquiry—rather than during a patient-staff exchange. Here’s some guidance to help you balance patient requests and employee rights.
Employee Health Data is Private
Employee vaccination records are part of their private health information. So, just like you wouldn’t reveal someone’s cancer diagnosis or STD status, you shouldn’t divulge vaccine information.
The short answer to the initial question of whether or not to share your employees’ vaccine status with your patients is “No.” It’s generally a bad idea to provide vaccine-status info to patients due to privacy issues.
Waivers Aren’t a Workaround
But what if you asked employees to sign a release allowing you to share their personal health information with patients? Could you relay vaccination information then?
Again, HR experts caution against it. Even if all employees have been vaccinated and have happily agreed to share this info with patients, there are multiple reasons why you wouldn’t want to make this type of public decree. While many of them involve employee-discrimination risks, issuing a public announcement of this sort also may be misconstrued as a guarantee regarding the safety of your office. And that could open a whole new can of worms.
Granted, when patients question employees individually, staff members are free to answer truthfully about themselves. But employers are discouraged from such revelations, as they could lead to further patient probes about the rest of the team's status, which is strictly confidential.
Broaching the Subject
How should you answer vaccine-related inquiries? Start by explaining that you’re encouraging or perhaps requiring employees to get vaccinated. (Here are additional insights about making vaccinations mandatory.) Also, relay that you’re following state mandates and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
You might even describe the strategies you’ve implemented to make employee vaccinations desirable and easy to obtain.
But no matter what information you provide, refrain from supplying specifics about the percentage of employees that received or will receive vaccines, and don’t discuss reasons employees may be unwilling or unable to be vaccinated.
Stick to a Script
Along with this general guidance, here is a script to help you address patient concerns while safeguarding employee health information.
We are encouraging our team to get vaccinated as soon as the shots become available to them, and we are committed to providing a safe environment for both our team and our patients.
However, even though our team members might have the ability to get vaccinated at this time, that's not the case for most of our patients. In addition, public health experts caution that even someone who has been vaccinated could still potentially transmit the virus to others.
Therefore, we’re continuing to wear all necessary PPE and following CDC guidance to minimize the potential virus spread at our practice. That means we will continue to maintain the same health and safety protocols that have been in place throughout the pandemic, and we're updating our efforts whenever the CDC releases new information.
We are trying our best to make it as easy as possible for our team members to access the vaccine. However, their medical information is private, so unfortunately we can't disclose anyone's vaccination status.
If you’d like additional guidance regarding employee-vaccination queries—or you need further advice on COVID-related topics or employment issues in general—check out the free resources from CEDR.
About the Author: Nora Gustafson is an Arizona-barred attorney and graduated cum laude from George Washington University Law School. As an HR expert and employment law consultant at CEDR HR Solutions, Nora provides HR guidance to dental employers all over the country on issues related to hiring, firing and everything in between.