As more and more people get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, there is growing concern about the number of unvaccinated people and if they should be in the same healthcare spaces as vaccinated people. Although vaccinated people are at lower risk for contracting the virus or experiencing severe symptoms, many people cannot get vaccinated such as children under 2 and those with immune system disorders. This complicates the issue of healthcare for people who choose not to get the vaccine as they may potentially expose people who have compromised immune systems or infants who cannot receive the vaccine. In addition to the risk of spreading the virus to vulnerable members of the community, unvaccinated people are at significantly higher risk for developing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms. In fact, in the past several months an increasing number of unvaccinated people have been either hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 in the United States. As this alarming trend continues, many physicians are debating the ethical implications of mandating vaccines or allowing unvaccinated people into healthcare facilities.
As vaccination rates improve across the country, the divide between those who are vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated has been steadily growing. One doctor in Alabama said he will no longer treat unvaccinated patients, “We do not yet have any great treatments for severe disease, but we do have great prevention with vaccines. Unfortunately, many have declined to take the vaccine, and some end up severely ill or dead. I cannot and will not force anyone to take the vaccine, but I also cannot continue to watch my patients suffer and die from an eminently preventable disease.” Despite the fact that many healthcare professionals around the U.S. are having a hard time sympathizing with unvaccinated patients who become ill with COVID-19, all healthcare workers still have an ethical and moral obligation to treat patients regardless of their beliefs and behaviors. Since most physicians and healthcare providers abide by this moral code, health experts believe their won’t be many barriers for unvaccinated people seeking treatment.
Dr. Jeffrey Norris, the chief medical officer at Father Joe’s Villages, a large homeless service agency in San Diego, California, said doctors are obligated to meet patients where they are at, regardless of lifestyle choices that may put their health at risk. For example, doctors never deny treatment to people who smoke cigarettes or those who abuse drugs, despite the fact that their lifestyle choices may be the cause of their illness. “We do listen to them and try to understand where they are coming from, and what their perspective is. Vaccination is no different,” Norris said. Norris does not expect unvaccinated people to have trouble accessing care. “I do not think we will see a large number of healthcare providers decline to provide care to unvaccinated people. I think most healthcare providers will choose to meet patients where they are, even if that means being unvaccinated,” said Norris.
Despite the fact that private healthcare providers can decide which patients they see, denying care to unvaccinated people could cost them their medical licensing and customers while damaging their public reputation. Consequently, healthcare providers who represent a private organization or healthcare system most likely wouldn’t choose to deny care to the unvaccinated. Whether or not someone has been vaccinated, they must be examined and given treatment in an ER or hospital as mandated by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which states that all patients coming to the ER must be treated even if they cannot afford treatment or don’t have insurance. In addition to the ethical issues doctors would face by refusing to treat unvaccinated patients, denying treatment to unvaccinated patients would also be a missed opportunity to hear out any of their concerns about the vaccine, educate them, and encourage them to get vaccinated. According to Faith Fletcher PhD, an assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics, educating and having open conversation with people who are skeptical of the vaccine is especially important since most of the distrust regarding the vaccine comes from misinformation and unreliable news online. She continued on to say, “Healthcare professionals are vital and reliable sources of facts and information, mistrust in the healthcare system only reduces confidence in vaccines.”
Although many physicians and other healthcare providers are struggling to sympathize with unvaccinated patients, it is important that they continue to treat all patients equally while attempting to educate those who may be against vaccination. Educating and having open discussions with patients, both vaccinated and unvaccinated may help break down some of the barriers between the two groups and combat the misinformation online. As more unvaccinated people become ill with the virus it is vital that healthcare workers continue to treat everyone with compassion and respect in order to better serve the community and increase vaccination rates. Even though most doctors plan to continue treating those who are unvaccinated, they still urge those who have not received the vaccine to get it for their own safety.