First published May 26, 2021
We know vaccination is how we end this pandemic and care for each other. Many congregations are wondering how they should approach tracking COVID vaccination with members, volunteers and visitors. The UUA encourages congregations to consider how to sensitively encourage vaccination even if vaccination isn't required.
Please remember every congregation is different. Some congregations know they have a high rate of vaccination because people have been volunteering this information. Some congregations have a significant number of vaccine-hesitant members. Some congregations include many children under 5, some have none. Some congregations have many immunocompromised adults who are not as well protected by vaccination. Following the guidance of science while centering inclusion, consent, and flexibility will look different in different congregations.
Some congregations are considering asking staff to be vaccinated. Please see our LeaderLab article on staff vaccination if you are considering this.
Vaccination does not mean removing masks. Vaccinated people are less likely to become infected and less likely to spread COVID. But as vaccinated people can spread COVID, masks are still an important layer of safety regardless of vaccination status.
Can We Legally Require Vaccination for Participation?
One legal concern that comes up about this relates to HIPAA, a US law that protects patients from having their health-related information shared without their permission. HIPAA does not prevent your congregation from asking about vaccination status. However, some states may have laws restricting your ability to ask specifically about COVID vaccination status. Make sure you are familiar with any relevant laws in your state or locality.
Why Would We Ask Participants about Vaccination?
- Your congregation’s locality’s government may require vaccination for public indoor spaces. If this is the case, your visitors and members may expect to be attending events where all are vaccinated.
- Having a high level of vaccination at in-person events reduces the chance of someone attending with an infectious case of COVID-19.
- Combined with universal masking, vaccination substantially increases the safety of an event.
- Widespread vaccination is the most important way to protect our world from COVID-19 in the long term.
Why Wouldn’t We Ask Participants about Vaccination?
There are a few concerns about asking for vaccination:
- Asking for or requiring vaccination can put pressure on people who cannot be vaccinated or are vaccine hesitant that make it difficult to build trust
- Not all people can be vaccinated, including those under 5. Requiring vaccination can reinforce ableism for those who have medical reasons they cannot get vaccinated. Guidance on supporting those with medical concerns.
- Some people are still at risk, even with vaccination, as their immune systems do not mount a strong protective response and they are at risk of severe illness if infected
- Some vaccine-hesitant people and parents need more encouragement and support, including concrete help accessing vaccination, and a vaccine requirement that doesn’t include support may be challenged.
- Some people may be hesitant to choose vaccination for their children when the approval is still an "Emergency Use Authorization" and want to wait possibly until full FDA approval.
What Should We Tell People?
Members, friends, and visitors are likely to want to know, even if they don’t ask, what the level of vaccination is in your congregation and your approach to vaccination. Being transparent allows people to make more informed safety decisions for themselves. Examples:
“We do not ask the vaccination status of those attending our services; however we require vaccination of those supervising children under 5.”
“We know from personal sharing that more than 90% of our congregation is vaccinated. We hope visitors are also vaccinated, unless medical conditions prevent this. We are continuing to require masks for all people in order to slow the virus’s spread and to protect our children and more vulnerable members of our congregation.”
“Because our city is asking for vaccination for adults attending restaurants and gyms, we are asking the same of those attending in person events. Please contact the senior minister to discuss a medical exemption.”
“We do not ask the vaccination status for those attending our in-person services. Because we have some differences among our membership on vaccination we are planning our safety standards as if all are unvaccinated and at high risk.”
Sample Vaccination Policies
The UU Church of Nashua, NH has a policy (PDF) that requires COVID vaccinations and proof of vaccination for all staff, anyone working with children and youth, anyone leading worship or running tech from the sanctuary, anyone singing in the building, pastoral associates doing in person visits, and anyone engaging with vulnerable populations due to their role in church.
The UU Congregation in East Brunswick, NJ has written a policy requiring staff and volunteers with children (PDF) to be vaccinated and includes policy on handling medical exemptions.
Considerations for Asking Participants about Vaccination Status
If you are considering asking volunteers, members, friends, or visitors about their vaccination status, here are some questions to consider:
- What exemptions or additional protections should we have in place knowing that some people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or even with a vaccine may not be well protected?
- While HIPAA doesn’t apply to congregations, everyone deserves to have their medical information kept confidential. How can our congregation honor people’s privacy, especially the privacy of those with medical exemptions?
- Would we ask for proof of vaccination and/or compile documentation? Who would do that?
- If we are going to trust people’s word, do we trust that our participants will be honest?
- What will we do to encourage those eligible for booster shots to receive them to decrease the chance of infection after vaccination and because the CDC is encouraging boosters for all adults over 18?
- Are there volunteer roles where volunteers should be vaccinated for the near term? (For instance, volunteer choir directors or people who spend time with elders or younger children.) Should we require booster shots of these volunteers?
- Will our safety standards still take into account that even though the number of transmissible cases in vaccinated individuals is substantially lower, it is still possible for vaccinated individuals to infect others?
For Members and Friends
- What is the local expectation for vaccination in public spaces?
- If vaccination is controversial in our community, can we find a covenantal approach to helping members and friends consider the impacts of their vaccination choices on the safety of their fellow congregants?
- Do we worry that any in our congregation might lie in order to participate? How could we handle this?
- Understanding a small number of people cannot vaccinated or will mount a strongly protective antibody response, how can we work against ableism and have an inclusive community? In what ways will we include people who cannot attend safely in person?
- Can we create a medical exemption process just as we would for staff?
- What are our local city and state standards around vaccination? If asking about vaccination is common or required in our city, will visitors be expected to be asked about their vaccination status and expect to be attending only with others who are vaccinated?
- If we asked about vaccination for members and friends, how would we be inclusive of visitors? Would we ask them at the door?
- If we choose to require vaccinations of visitors, how will we help visitors be aware of this?
Covenantal and Creative Ways Forward
- Consider having covenantal conversations about how we protect each other.
- Celebrate vaccination within the congregation and encourage people to share their vaccination pictures and emotions.
- Keep track of what percentage of the congregation has voluntarily shared their vaccination story and point out to the congregation how this is creating a safer congregation for all.
- Recognize there is a difference between policies for the whole congregation’s public Sunday morning gathering and choices of smaller groups who have built trust and know each other’s vaccination status.
- Remind people that vaccination is not available to all yet and does not protect all.
- Consider following the UUA recommendation to continue indoor masking regardless of vaccination status as vaccinated individuals can spread COVID-19 and can spread its Delta variant even more readily.
- How to Talk to Someone Fearful of Getting the Vaccine, from the New York Times
- Houses of Worship Grapple with the Vaxxed and Un-Vaxxed Divide, from NPR
- The Unseen Covid Risk for Unvaccinated People, from the Washington Post
- They Haven’t Gotten a Covid Vaccine Yet. But They Aren’t ‘Hesitant’ Either, from the New York Times