Many congregations are wondering how they should approach tracking COVID vaccination with members, volunteers and visitors.
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 lot of vaccine hesitant people. Some congregations have a lot of children under 12, some have none. Some congregations have many immunocompromised adults not 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 Leader Lab article on staff vaccination if you are considering this.
Can We Legally?
One legal concern that comes up about this concerns HIPAA, which protects patients from having their health-related information shared without their permission. It does not keep your congregation from asking about vaccination status. However, some states may have laws restricting your ability to ask specifically about COVID vaccines. Make sure you are familiar with any relevant laws in your state or locality.
Why Wouldn’t We Ask?
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 12.
- Requiring vaccination can reinforce ableism for those who have medical reasons they cannot get vaccinated.
- Some people are still at risk, even with vaccination, as their immunue systems do not mount a strong protective response and they are at risk of severe illness if infected. This is particularly true if exposed to high viral loads such as might happen for a long time, inside, without masks or ventilation.
Focusing on individual vaccination also puts people’s attention on individual risk rather than community risk. Many communities are still seeing high spread among the not-yet vaccinated. This group includes not only those who have chosen not to get vaccinated but also those who are having trouble getting vaccinated for reasons of internet access, transportation, work schedules, and care giving responsibilities. Spread begun at a congregational event, even just to one non-yet vaccinated person, could end up impacting more of these not-yet vaccinated people in your community.
You may find that what matters most for your congregation at this stage of the pandemic isn’t the percent vaccinated in your congregation, but equitable local availability of vaccines, local case rates, and finding safer ways to gather that reduce risk for your congregation and your wider community.
Should We Ask?
If you are considering asking volunteers, members and friends, or visitors about their vaccination status, here are some questions to consider:
- How can we avoid ableism knowing that some people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or even with a vaccine may not be protected (immunocompromised or organ transplant recipients)?
- While HIPAA doesn’t apply to congregations, everyone deserves to have their medical information kept confidential. How can our congregation honor people’s privacy? Can we collect vaccination status information in a way that avoids having those who cannot be vaccinated or are not protected standing out?
- Are we going to ask for proof and compile documentation? Who will do that?
- If we are going to trust people’s assertion, do we have concerns that this creates pressure to lie?
- Are there volunteer roles where volunteers should be vaccinated for the near term? For instance volunteer choir directors or working with younger children until younger children can be vaccinated?
- If requiring a vaccination for the near term for some volunteer roles, how can we reduce the ableism in the long term, knowing that some people may not be able to vaccinated, and we do not want to shut their gifts out of volunteer roles in our congregation long term? What time limit on such requirements might we have?
- Will our safety standards still take into account that a very small number of vaccinated people may not produce antibodies and that it’s possible, though unlikely, that a vaccinated person can pass COVID-19 to an unvaccinated person with sufficiently long exposure - for instance, indoors in a closed room with insufficient ventilation for a long time?
Members and Friends
- 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?
- Might asking for vaccination status create pressure to lie in order to participate, undermining covenant? How could we handle this?
- Understanding that not everyone can be vaccinated or will mount an antibody response, how can we work against ableism and have an inclusive community?
- If we allow vaccinated people to unmask indoors, how will we reassure those who cannot be vaccinated and are at risk that all who are unmasked are vaccinated? Will we do this on an honor system? Keep records? (The UUA suggests considering continuing to asking all to mask indoors for the near future because of these complexities.)
- If we asked about vaccination for members and friends, how would we be inclusive of visitors? Would we ask them at the door? Would this feel inclusive and welcoming?
- If we choose to require vaccinations of visitors, can we post a prominent notification on our website and in all-congregation emails, add it to our outgoing phone message, and put up signage at our entrance to let visitors (and remind members) of the expectation?
Covenantal and Creative Ways Forward
- Consider having circle style 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 in solidarity with those who are not vaccinated so that they can be safer. This is especially important if some who are not vaccinated might not mask if others are not because they don’t want to stand out, which would put unvaccinated people at risk.
- 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