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HIPAA and Vaccines: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 27, 2021

HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It’s a federal law that includes a rule designed to protect the privacy of your health information. It makes it illegal for certain people and groups in the health care field, like doctors and health insurers, to share your health information without your consent.

Because HIPAA helps guard your privacy, some people wonder whether it bars employers, restaurants, stores, and other retail businesses from asking whether you’ve gotten certain vaccines, like the one for COVID-19.

The short answer is this: In general, the HIPAA privacy rule doesn’t apply to them. That means they can ask you to show proof you’ve been vaccinated.

When You’re a Customer

There’s no national law that prevents private businesses from asking customers for proof they've been vaccinated against COVID-19. But states can enact their own laws that do this, the way Florida did in April 2021.

When You’re an Employee

Similarly, there’s no federal law that forbids your employer from asking your vaccine status. But they must keep your information confidential. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to share that info with them. You might have to deal with job-related consequences if you don't, though.

Federal equal opportunity laws also don’t stop employers from requiring employees who work in-person to get vaccinated for COVID-19. But in some situations, employers must make accommodations for workers who can’t get the vaccine for certain reasons, like a disability or strong religious belief. The exception is if those accommodations “would pose an undue hardship" on operating the business.

If you’re unvaccinated and need to work at your place of business, your employer can ask you to do certain things that lower the chances of you or your co-workers catching COVID-19, such as:

  • Wear a face mask at work.
  • Stay socially distanced from others.
  • Work different hours.
  • Occasionally get tested for COVID-19.

Some employers might give you the chance to work from home or get reassigned to a different role.

You could be entitled to accommodations like these if you’re pregnant and there’s also a medical reason you can’t get vaccinated. In general, though, pregnant women can get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Federal equal opportunity laws also say employers:

  • Can offer incentives for employees to show proof they’re vaccinated
  • If they vaccinate their employees, can offer them rewards for getting the vaccine. But the rewards can’t be so big that employees feel pressured to share protected medical info. This includes things like disability-related screening questions you answer before you get vaccinated.
  • Can give employees information about the COVID-19 vaccine to educate them about the benefits of getting vaccinated

The bottom line: If a business or your employer asks you whether you're vaccinated, or requires you to get the coronavirus vaccine, they’re doing so in hopes of preventing the contagious COVID-19 virus from spreading at work.

If for some reason you can’t get the vaccine, talk with your manager or human resources department.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “3028 -- If my employer requires proof of my COVID-19 vaccination status, does that violate my rights under HIPAA?”

CDC: “Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA),” “Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccination.”

World Health Organization: “How to talk about vaccines.”

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “EEOC Issues Updated COVID-19 Technical Assistance,” “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.”

Associated Press: "Florida governor issues order banning 'vaccine passports.' "

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