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Some people are going to great lengths to get inoculated in secret over fear of backlash from their communities and families. Luis Velasco/Stocksy United
  • Some people have begun getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in secret for fear friends and family may disapprove of their decision to get the shot.
  • Medical experts say the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccines has added additional challenges during the pandemic.
  • If you opt to get vaccinated, healthcare professionals cannot disclose that information without your consent to a loved one.

We’re in a precarious time in the global COVID-19 pandemic. Variants of the coronavirus are sprouting around the world, and one issue particularly plaguing the United States is the phenomenon of vaccine-hesitant sentiments.

Debates over whether or not to get vaccinated have driven sharp wedges between family and loved ones. The politicization of protective face masks and needed vaccinations have generated debate within entire communities as nationwide hospitalizations and deaths climb.

This has all created a dynamic where some people who want to get vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them from the spread of the coronavirus and its evolving variants might feel the need to do so discreetly, kept secret from the pressure and disapproval of family and friends.

It’s a dynamic that’s being reported widely, especially in regions of the country with high rates of COVID-19 transmission.

A recent CNN report highlighted a West Plains, Missouri, doctor who discussed the phenomenon of patients going to great lengths to get inoculated in secret over fear of backlash from their communities and families.

Experts say this politicization adds yet another very American-specific pandemic pressure to a crisis that’s stretching healthcare resources thin and scaling personal anxieties high to begin with.

How does one safely keep an inoculation secret, and what are strategies for doing what’s best for your own safety and health while pushing back against community and peer pressure?

“We know from vaccine distribution maps that low vaccination rates are clustered in specific areas of the country. We also know that oftentimes, people from similar backgrounds who are embedded within a social network may hold similar beliefs, including mistrust about COVID vaccine safety or efficacy,” explained Melissa J. Basile, PhD, medical anthropologist at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.

Basile told Healthline that, within certain communities, “negative information about the vaccine is being circulated that is leading people within that community to not trust the science behind the vaccine in the first place.”

“While there may be social pressure in some case, both for and against vaccination, unless it’s an extreme circumstance, people who want the vaccine will find a way to get it,” she added.

Dr. Timothy Brewer, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and of Medicine, told Healthline that “one of the tragedies of the pandemic and our national response to the pandemic” is how politicized basic protective healthcare measures became.

From the start of the pandemic in the United States, wearing a protective face mask became a political statement, and, eventually, getting a vaccination became a political statement.

Brewer, who also is a member of the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said that actions that are common sense for protecting oneself and the surrounding community became charged in our current cable news- and social media-driven national political echo chambers.

He cited the irony that no one is waging mass protests over other common vaccinations.

“Nobody is taking to the streets and saying the government is trying to shove tetanus vaccines down our throats,” Brewer told Healthline.

Like any vaccination, those administered to protect against COVID-19 are not 100 percent effective. While some people who have been inoculated have still contracted the coronavirus — the highly publicized “breakthrough” cases — those remain relatively few.

The vast majority (well over 90 percent) of national cases of serious COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have been seen in people who either chose not to get vaccinated or have yet to seek out a vaccine.

What many vaccine-hesitant advocates and people who believe in conspiracy theories cling to is that “not 100 percent effective” figure.

This is something that has certainly caused headaches and concern among medical officials who just want people to embrace these vaccines the way they do any number of routine, necessary, and lifesaving vaccines, from measles and smallpox to chickenpox.

“Somehow, we have linked important measures to deal with a pandemic virus to politics and one’s core identity. Most countries have been able to avoid that,” Brewer said.

“It’s really a shame, since it’s really handicapping our ability to respond to this pandemic, and we’re seeing that play out in places like Florida and Arkansas and Missouri, where rather than focusing on public health and doing what we can do best to make sure everyone is as safe and healthy as possible, we’re allowing politics to cloud our judgments,” he said.

How do you go about getting vaccinated while keeping it a secret from family and friends, even significant others?

“At this time, vaccines are widely available at most walk-in clinics and pharmacies. Those who would like to receive the vaccine should know that their COVID vaccination status, as with all healthcare they receive, is private and protected by HIPAA codes and laws operating in most states,” Basile explained. “They should feel comfortable that their vaccine status will not be revealed by the healthcare professional who is administering the vaccine.”

It’s important to note Basile’s words. Medical privacy laws and regulations ensure that medical discussions and procedures by a doctor and other healthcare professionals remain confidential between practitioner and patient.

If you opt to get a vaccination, the healthcare professional cannot disclose that information without your consent to a loved one.

Brewer said he’d suggest people who find themselves in this predicament — wanting to get a vaccine while living in a heavily vaccine-hesitant climate — reach out to their doctors as well as local and county public health departments.

He said these trusted resources and officials will help you navigate these tricky waters and point you to resources available in your community to make sure you get the vaccinations and care you need to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

“That is their job, and that is a good place to start,” he stressed.

Of course, this puts a lot of onus on the individual. If you’re living in an extremely vaccine-hesitant environment, it can be hard to push against peer pressure.

Brewer added just how anxiety-inducing this can be. Leaning on your primary care doctor can be helpful, but it doesn’t ease against the stress that comes from pushing against something that can feel larger than yourself and your own health.

One thing to consider is to avoid conflict with those who are vaccine-hesitant. Perhaps refrain from those social media battles — or fights at the dinner table — and try to do what you can personally to stop the spread of the virus by consulting with your doctor about getting a vaccine.

Also, personally practice protective measures like wearing a mask and physical distancing, especially in areas experiencing COVID-19 surges.

“If you’re dealing with a friend or family member who is ‘anti-vax,’ you’re probably not going to change their mind. Whatever you’ve seen or read that’s convinced you that the vaccine is safe and effective, it’s likely that they have probably seen or read something that’s opposite, and they’re convinced they’re right too,” Basile said.

“If possible, it’s best to avoid situations where an argument may arise and escalate,” she said.

One big roadblock stands in front of children and young adults. While the COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for people 12 years old and up, there are many U.S. states that require children under 18 to receive the permission of parents or guardians to get medical care like a vaccination.

Some states do allow minors to make healthcare decisions under the age of 18. This includes Alabama at age 14, California and Oregon at age 15, and South Carolina at age 16.

Some states like Colorado, Indiana, and Maine also allow early consent for treatment and healthcare contingent on specific events, such as if you lived apart from your parents or guardians, according to the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Clinical Research Involving Children.

Brewer said that the quandary young people face in states that have strict laws about medical consent for minors is a big one, especially if they live with guardians who are stringently against vaccinations.

He stressed that he isn’t an expert on consent laws regarding minors in different states, but said that a young person worried about getting a vaccination while in a vaccine-hesitant environment might consider seeking the counsel of their “school nurse or guidance counselor” to determine what options are out there.

“I would think that is something where a school nurse or guidance counselor might be able to know [what to do],” Brewer said. “It’s also certainly something that health clinics would know. They could reach out to their local healthcare clinic in their neighborhood and find out what options are potentially available to them.”

Brewer explained that this politicized, anti-vaccination message is challenging for medical officials, too.

He said that while he lives in Los Angeles — an area of the country that has local and state governments that closely follow COVID-19 guidance — it’s more challenging for his colleagues who live in more vaccine-hesitant areas of the country.

Helping provide people the healthcare they need, such as getting vaccinated against COVID-19, in the face of such large-scale opposition is a big challenge.

At the end of the day, both Brewer and Basile stress that you should seek out the proper care you need through your doctor.

If you don’t have easy or direct access to a healthcare professional, visit a local health clinic or pharmacy where vaccines are being distributed. You can also consult regional public health departments.

Try your best to refrain from direct conflict or peer pressure from those around you who are vaccine-hesitant.

For minors, look to the counsel of health officials who have your best interest at heart, whether your school nurse, your family doctor, or local clinic.

Try to find an advocate who can help you navigate a path to getting the care you need in the face of this pandemic.