June 2, 2021


HIPAA, also known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is a misunderstood law. The law was designed to set national standards to protect sensitive patient information from being disclosed by specific parties without the patient’s consent or knowledge. The Privacy Rule defines what information is protected and what entities are covered. Health care providers, health plans, business associates are entities that are expected to follow the law. The Privacy Law explains permitted uses, which includes situations like payments, disclosing information to the patient, and also for reasons of Public Interest, such as law enforcement, domestic violence, workers compensation, and public health activities to prevent or lessen a threat to safety. It also includes the security rule, defining the entities covered and the breech notification rule. All very important for the privacy of the patient.

This is different than asking someone if they are vaccinated. Some people object to being asked if they are vaccinated, calling it a HIPAA violation to even ask. That is simply not true. The law does not define ‘asking’ as a violation, since private citizens are not covered entities. We are allowed to ask, just as the person asked is allowed to decline to answer.

True, that there may be consequences for their refusal to answer, such as being grouped with the unvaccinated or having their business move elsewhere. But asking is not illegal and can be important for people who might be immunocompromised despite vaccination. It can also protect the person asking who can choose to stay and risk exposure, or opt to leave. As cases fall, this idea of asking may seem less important, since risk has dropped. For most people that is true, but for some that are vulnerable, asking may protect their health.

The US has given almost 300 million doses of vaccines and our rate of infections and deaths are dropping. This is a true success. For many, life is opening up again because the rate of infections has plummeted. But not in all areas as this Washington Post article shows the risk of infection is still high in some areas because of low uptake of vaccines.

As our lives improve we can easily think the pandemic is nearing its end. I wish it were so. The global pandemic is worsening, the variants are spreading, and the virus is surging in more than just India. Knowing someone’s vaccination status becomes more important since we are still not clear about the vaccine protecting from these variants.

We can still do our part, encourage vaccination, wear your mask when inside and around vulnerable people. Be the example you want to see. And yes, ask the dental hygienist, hair stylist, or massage therapist if they are vaccinated, especially if you feel vulnerable. They can answer or not. If not, then protect yourself as you see fit. You may stay healthy but also prevent the spread to others that are more vulnerable.

Wash your hands, cover your nose when needed, and think about others.

And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading.