- September 2, 2021
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Plus answers to all the burning vaccine etiquette questions we all have.
Coronavirus cases are rising once again as summer turns toward fall and we spend more time indoors. The availability of vaccines has opened up more opportunities to safely socialize than we’ve had at other points during the pandemic.
But with a large number of individuals refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine, questions about how to safely interact with others and what information is important for you to know (not to mention is polite to ask) about their vaccine status are top of mind for many. Should you ask your hairdresser, babysitter, or others you come in contact with if they’ve had a shot?
We asked the experts when and how you should pop the question — about vaccine status — in the time of COVID-19.
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Getting your hair cut — or engaging similar professional services indoors, such as having your nails done or getting a facial or massage — is definitely more risky than taking a quick trip to the store, because you're going to be in close physical proximity to another person for an extended period of time inside, according to Marissa Baker, PhD, an assistant professor of occupational health at the University of Washington in Seattle. It's also likely going to be riskier than, say, seeing your dentist, because workers in medical fields typically have access to better protective clothing and equipment, she says.
But for fully vaccinated individuals, the risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19 is significantly reduced, says Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, who adds that he had his own hair cut indoors in mid-August.
If everyone in an indoor space is properly masked and vaccinated, and the building has good ventilation, the risk of viral transmission is low, says Anne Liu, MD, a clinical associate professor of infectious diseases at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions: Proper masking for customers and service providers is important, and keeping doors and windows open is advised if possible. In areas with a high number of COVID-19 cases and where a low percentage of the population is vaccinated, Dr. Liu recommends putting off the haircut if you can.
At the end of the day, the question boils down to risk tolerance, Dr. Adalja says. “We're not going to get a point where there is no risk of getting COVID from a haircut,” he says. “There will always be some level of risk, even five years from now.”
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If you're going to be in close proximity to another person for an extended period of time while they cut your hair, both Adalja and Liu answer with a resounding yes: You should ask them about their vaccination status.
“I think that's an important thing to ask,” Adalja says. “If a vaccinated person is cutting the hair of a vaccinated person, that's a low-risk situation. You should ask your hairdresser, and salons should mandate vaccination.”
Dr. Baker takes a slightly more cautious approach. Service professionals like hairstylists may not have access to paid time off to facilitate getting a vaccine, even if they want one. In some communities, there is also the possibility that the person you ask could become aggressive or even physically violent, she says.
Services involving children are a different matter, Baker says. Because she herself is vaccinated, she says she doesn't change her actions based on whether she thinks the people around her are or are not vaccinated. But because a child does not have access to the same level of protection, she says, it is important that the adults interacting with them are vaccinated.
“It is tough coming up with a childcare protocol that is completely airtight if you are using either a day care or a babysitter,” Dr. Liu says. “Incorporating masking and ventilation should be very helpful under these circumstances. If I were hiring a babysitter or checking out a day care, I would absolutely, unequivocally ask about vaccination status of the adults. I would not hire a babysitter who could not produce proof of completed vaccination.”
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Despite what you may have heard about privacy violations on social media, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does not bar anyone from asking about your vaccination status. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the law was created to prevent a patient's information from being disclosed by a healthcare provider without the patient's knowledge or consent.
So, yes, you can legally ask your friend, hairdresser, or anyone else about their vaccination status, since you're asking the patient themselves for that information, and they can then choose whether to disclose it. Your hairdresser's doctor, however, can't answer if you ask whether your hairdresser is vaccinated without a waiver from the hairdresser giving consent to disclose that information.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also notes that because HIPAA rules apply only to healthcare providers, health insurance companies, and other companies that handle health information for patients, the law does not prevent employers from inquiring about the vaccination status of employees
However, Baker notes, just because it's legal to ask about someone's vaccination status, that doesn't mean they're compelled to answer or to tell the truth.
“A year ago we were telling people to assume everyone you interact with could have COVID,” she says. “Now assume everyone you interact with is unvaccinated.”
Liu recommends asking generally about vaccines and safety protocols while booking an appointment with a hairstylist or dentist — or before you physically go somewhere and are in the position to come into close contact with someone providing a service to you. Some businesses require that workers be vaccinated.
If you feel uncomfortable posing the question directly to someone you’re going to be in close contact with (whether it’s someone you’re hiring for a service or even a friend), which could make some people feel defensive, Baker recommends bringing up the topic through the course of more organic conversation.
“There are strategies where you can mention, 'Oh gosh, I got my vaccine, and it had this effect,'” Baker says. If you bring up your status first, she says, they might feel more comfortable sharing theirs.
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Here's what the experts say they would do (or have done) in similar scenarios.
Adalja learned during a recent appointment that his hairdresser was not vaccinated. His choice was to nonjudgmentally ask why they were not vaccinated to see if he could address some of their fears. He even asked if he could help them set up an appointment.
His hairdresser refused his offer of help. Adalja decided he will find a new stylist in the future because he wants to avoid this type of risk exposure.
“I don't want to sanction that kind of behavior,” he says about his personal decision to find another hairdresser.
If you do cancel an appointment because the provider is not vaccinated or they or their customers decline to wear a mask, Baker recommends keeping your refusal short, polite, and to the point: You're sorry to cancel, but you just don't feel comfortable.
It's important to remember, Baker says, that service workers face far greater risks than their patrons due to the number of people they come into contact with every day compared with people in nonpublic facing jobs.
“As patrons who are able to benefit from these services,” she says, “we should do everything we can to protect them and support them.”
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