As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available to Americans, they represent a key opportunity to bring the pandemic under control. Dental hygienists are no strangers to vaccine requirements and mandates. What many of us have not experienced until now, however, is questioning our vaccination status from our patients. Given the heightened awareness of vaccines and the strength of emotion surrounding the pandemic, some curiosity from our patients is to be expected. Here, we discuss how dental hygienists can field questions about their vaccination status in a way that both honors their rights and maintains patient relationships.
To disclose or not to disclose?
First, while you are free to share your vaccination status with patients if you wish, you are generally not under any obligation. The practice may indicate that everyone has been vaccinated - unless the law states that you must give written consent for this to be disclosed. However, in most situations there is no requirement to provide written consent and then it cannot be disclosed.
What if the dental team is happy to share?
If your entire team is happy to disclose their vaccination status, it might be tempting to volunteer this information to your patients. Here’s why that could backfire:
- Some team members may feel pressured to disclose for the benefit of the clinic, or because they don’t want to be the only one declining
- Those who cannot be vaccinated, for example due to a disability, may feel obliged to share further private health information to justify their decision
- Some may feel pressured to get the vaccine regardless of valid objections, simply because they do not want patients or colleagues to treat them differently.
Whether intentional or not, creating an environment in which employees feel pressured, or placed in the spotlight, can open the practice up to problems. Announcing your team is fully vaccinated may also make patients complacent about masking and social distancing guidelines.
So what can you say to an inquisitive patient?
The most effective response depends on the patient’s reason for asking.
Some patients will ask about your vaccination status because they are concerned about their own vulnerabilities (e.g., advanced age or pre-existing conditions), or those of the people they live or work with. In this case, they will be simply looking for reassurance that you are taking all necessary safety precautions.
Others may have personal or political beliefs that are incompatible with vaccination. In such cases, they may be asking due to their own particular concerns, or because they want to know if your beliefs and values align with theirs.
Here are some examples of how patient motivation might inform your response.
Patient: Is everyone in the office vaccinated?
Dental hygienist: We’ve encouraged all team members who are eligible to get the vaccination, but I can’t share another individual's vaccination status. Did you have a specific concern you wanted to talk about?
Patient 1 may reply: My husband has heart disease and we’re not vaccinated so I’m worried about exposing him to infection.
DH: That’s understandable. I can tell you that we’re doing everything we can in our clinic. We’re enforcing social distancing and masks, we’re wearing all necessary PPE, and we’re following all infection control guidelines set out by the CDC. [Include any extra measure you’re taking.]
Patient 2 may reply: I don’t want to get the vaccine until we know more about it. Can I still get treatment if I’m not vaccinated?
DH: Of course. We appreciate that not all of our patients are able to be vaccinated at this time. You’re welcome to book an appointment but we do ask that you follow the masking and social distancing guidelines in place for your safety and, of course, refrain from coming in if you are feeling unwell. [Elaborate on this]
Patient 3 may reply: I read that the vaccine causes people to shed virus particles and I don’t want to be exposed.
DH: The vaccine does not contain the virus and therefore would not cause people to shed virus particles.
Another question you might encounter:
Patient: You can share your own information, so can you tell me if you have been vaccinated or not?
If you do not wish to disclose, you could try the following responses:
- It is practice policy not to disclose individual vaccination status, but please be assured that we’re taking all necessary measures to protect your safety.
- I’m afraid that I can’t comment on any individual team members, including myself, but please be assured that everyone who is able to have the vaccine has done so.
Whatever your stance on sharing vaccination status, it is important that the whole dental team is on board. Consider initiating a team meeting to discuss a unified approach. It may also be helpful to outline your clinic policy on your website and social media pages.