The first thing she said when she called me was “you can’t tell anyone I told you this.” The secret was that a friend in our circle told her in confidence he is not vaccinated.
She was stunned and upset because he is a high-profile executive who spends several days a month traveling on planes to assorted locations where he interacts with many people. His wife, who is vaccinated, said he’s his own person and can make his own choices and didn’t seem to understand why it mattered if people around him were vaccinated.
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting public health professor at George Washington University, and Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University, compared being unvaccinated in public to drunken driving.
The professors wrote. “Consider the analogy: three out of every eight people killed are not the intoxicated driver, but their passengers or people in other vehicles. Similarly, with COVID-19, the risk is borne not only by the person making the decision but also by others who cross their path.”
Given the great vaccine divide, you may not agree with the analogy and I’m not writing to suggest who is right and who is wrong. Rather, because this particular person told our friend he isn’t vaccinated, he put her in an awkward position.
In a few weeks, she’s having a party and he’s invited. She believes everyone else attending is vaccinated and asked me if I thought it was still okay to have him over. I told her that is her call. She asked me what I would do if it was my house and without hesitation I said, I would not have him at my house and here’s why.
If other vaccinated guests knew he was not vaccinated, they may choose not to come. Some are immuno-compromised and don’t develop immunity even when vaccinated. Others, like me, have elderly parents, some in long term care settings who are more vulnerable even when vaccinated. Her friend could be completely asymptomatic but positive which means he can transmit the disease to others. Medical experts say because vaccines are not 100% effective, not only would he pose a great risk to unvaccinated people, but he would be a potential threat to those who are vaccinated as well.
Here’s the awkward part. He told her not to tell anyone, even though she told me and made me promise not to reveal his identity. If she blabs, she betrays his confidence and risks their friendship. At the same time, if those attending her party knew that she knew and didn’t tell them so they could decide for themselves whether to attend, they would be furious. If he happened to be asymptomatic and someone got sick after being around him, they would blame her. They would likely see it as a betrayal and her friendships with these people could end as well.
This situation reminds me of when I was a journalist covering the news. When a predicament surfaced, we always asked two questions:
- When did you know about it?
- What did you do about it?
If a company knew something was amiss and didn’t act swiftly, public perception usually turned against them. I believe the same four principles of crisis communication apply to many personal situations.
- Take care of victims or perceived victims. In the news business, reporters focus on what went wrong. If you knowingly put people in harms way, you are portrayed as someone who cares more about yourself than others around you and your reputation is damaged.
- Fix the problem. People want to know as soon as you knew something might be wrong, you jumped on it. If you didn’t, the negative publicity is relentless, and you may find yourself with bigger problems than the original problem.
- Tell the truth. Stonewalling, spinning the facts and trying to keep secrets only makes things worse. Explain what you did and why you did it. You might suffer in the short term, but when handled deliberately and thoughtfully, people will respect you.
- Communicate immediately. As soon as you are aware of an issue, communicate immediately. If you’re not talking, rumors and innuendo fill the gap and you lose control of the message.
Back to my friend. She’s very torn between betraying a secret and not sharing that secret information which could negatively impact her other friends. She called again and asked me if it was me, would I betray my friend’s secret? I told her that’s not for me to answer, but I did tell her this.
Imagine a best and worst case scenario. If your unvaccinated friend found out you blabbed, what would you say to him? If your guests found out you didn’t tell them and allow them to make their own decisions, how would you explain your actions to them? If one or both parties stopped talking to you, how would you feel?
I suggested that she consider uninviting him and telling him why. That way, she can keep his secret. Finally, I told her if she doesn’t want to do that, she can always take the easy way out and cancel the party.