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A Colleague Had Covid. Should Our Supervisor Have Told Us?

A co-worker and I learned that an absent colleague had tested positive for the coronavirus. A supervisor told me that the colleague emailed the news to his 10 immediate co-workers as well as the supervisor group. I was told that the right to medical privacy would prevent supervisors from making the news available to the rest of the staff, some 60 people. All of us share a kitchen, where employees regularly eat lunch. (We all wear masks except when eating.)

I believe that supervisors have an obligation to inform all employees about the positive test result. Before I was told about the medical-privacy issue, I mentioned the news to several co-workers, and I am tempted to spread the news wider if the supervisors don’t act on it. What is your take on this? Name Withheld

Medical privacy protects the right of an individual to restrict who can know of a medical condition. But you can tell people that they’ve been exposed without telling them who it was who exposed them. That’s how contact tracing works. People who used that kitchen (or who otherwise might have been in extended proximity with this person) should have been alerted that they might have been in contact with someone who was infected. If nobody else was notifying potential close contacts, you would do well to spread the word — again, without revealing who the person was. Because this situation may arise in the future, alert the supervisors to the guidance posted on the C.D.C.’s website, along with any pertinent state guidance. They should do their lawful best to protect employees and their families, and not simply rely on their hunches about medical privacy.

My neighbor recently told me that her husband had been sick for a few days (congested, headache, runny nose) and that she thought he might have Covid-19 even though they were vaccinated. She said that his coronavirus test was negative, but then she became very upset when she learned that I recently had a conversation with him. After our chat, I saw that they wore masks when leaving the house and while working outside. They continued to eat at the local diner, and he went to work every day. A week after our initial conversation, they stopped wearing masks.

My neighbor has told me many untruths in the past, so I do not believe that his test was negative. I considered calling the Health Department, but I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. What does someone do when faced with this situation? Name Withheld, New York

In the state of New York, the health regulations say that people who are symptomatic should remain isolated for 10 days after symptoms start, whether or not they test positive. So you would, indeed, have been justified in notifying the health authorities. Your neighbors, assuming your suspicions are correct, were letting down their community. If it’s any consolation, though, research suggests that people are typically most infectious in the early days of the disease, shortly before and then in the first five days after the onset of symptoms. By the time you had collected the evidence you present, they were probably past their peak of infectiousness.

You don’t describe the circumstances of your conversation with the husband; I hope it involved masks and some distance. You would have been well advised to test yourself and to have been especially careful about your own interactions with others in the week or so that followed.

A friend had Covid more than a year ago and does not think she needs to be vaccinated. When I raise the issue, she says that she has been tested and still has some antibodies or that she has had a recent negative coronavirus test.

I have an immune-system disorder and have had to be extremely careful during the pandemic. I have now had two vaccines and a booster shot, and my friend has extended several invitations for dinner at her home. I don’t think it’s unsafe to go to her home for dinner, because I am fully vaccinated. But I worry that the unvaccinated may allow the Delta variant to continue to spread and possibly mutate, putting everyone at risk once again. I do understand that some people have medical conditions that prevent them from getting a vaccine or object to vaccines for religious reasons, but my friend does not fall into either category. Given how strongly I believe in vaccination, should I decline her dinner invitation on principle? Name Withheld

There are two things you might call principles here. The first is that people like your friend ought to get vaccinated because it contributes to the common good. Even if you’ve had Covid, vaccination further lowers your chances of reinfection and helps slow the spread of the disease. This is a practice that we all benefit from and that we should do our fair share to sustain. That’s a principle I agree with.

The second principle is that one shouldn’t dine with people who ignore principles like the first one. For you, this is mainly an expressive act. Your friend must know that you think she’s mistaken; refusing to dine with her is presumably a way to underline your disagreement. You would be a better judge than I am of whether this is likely to encourage her to get vaccinated as well — or whether you would be damaging your friendship to no effect. That matters, because when our friends do something wrong, our aim should be to encourage them to do better, not to make them indignant or resentful.

Another approach might be more effective. Vaccines don’t always work well in people who are immunocompromised. If you feel safe, I hope it’s because your doctor was able to make that assessment in your case. Still, even if the risks to you are low, they would be even lower if she were vaccinated, too. Asking her to get vaccinated for your sake might be more effective than telling her that you so disapprove of her position that you don’t want to spend time in her company.

I am a teacher at a public elementary school. I taught in person last year and was vaccinated as soon as the shots were available to teachers. I’m now eligible for a booster, based on the C.D.C.’s decision to allow teachers to get a third shot. However, I’m on sabbatical and not interacting with large groups of children. I am 49 and quite healthy overall. Would it be ethical for me to get a booster shot? I’m eager to protect myself, as well as those around me, but I am unsure if getting the booster would prevent someone who is needier from getting one. Miriam, New York

Get the booster: There is a reasonable rule in place, and under that rule, you are eligible. Given the widespread availability of the vaccine here, you won’t be depriving someone in greater need of it. And plenty of people who are less in need than you — including young, healthy teachers in their 20s — will be getting the booster. I can’t help adding that your letter presents a painful paradox: While some people may forgo a jab because they care so much about the larger community, others skip getting vaccinated because they don’t care enough.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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