When the Herald sent a questionnaire asking local elected officials if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, it seemed like a boilerplate, yet relevant, survey.
After all, the Herald asked federal delegates and high officeholders that question in a survey earlier this year. Of the 13 we asked, 10 answered.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., politely responded: “Out of respect for the North Dakotans who value their liberty and privacy, I will not be detailing the specifics of my vaccination status.”
So it’s surprising to see local backlash. One state lawmaker called the Herald and incorrectly told us our survey is a violation of HIPAA, a surprisingly uninformed take on the law by one who makes laws. Some took to social media, claiming we are creating a database or that it’s “a trap.” One of the comments on social media noted our use of the word “deadline” in the survey, as if it’s some trick to box politicians into a corner, rather than a term used every day in the newspaper industry as we plan our content. An invitation recently sent by the Herald to a handful of local leaders to help us tout some good news happening in the community, or the deadline attached to it, didn’t similarly make it onto social media.
Another wondered if the Herald’s employees are vaccinated (answer: the Herald is a private entity, but for the sake of this conversation, the publisher confirms he has received the vaccine).
So why do we ask?
As lawmakers discuss coronavirus mitigation forms, we wonder where they stand on vaccines. We believe it’s our duty to inquire about the health of leaders who answer only to the people and not to a particular boss. These leaders are in charge of public health departments whose staff have urged residents to get vaccinated. Also, people take their cues from elected leaders and local influencers.
When then-Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown had triple-bypass surgery in 2015 but didn’t reveal it for nearly two weeks, we wrote that his secrecy was “a betrayal of the trust that Grand Forks residents vest in their mayor.”
In 2017, when state Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, missed a series of votes in the Legislature, the Herald reported she had been in the hospital. In 2020, we reported Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, had contracted COVID.
Back to vaccines: Federal government workers are required to have the shot. Locally, Altru Health System – a massive employer – has mandated vaccines for its employees. To enter Canada requires proof of vaccination.
So why is it morally wrong to simply ask local elected officials, who answer to the people, if they are vaccinated?
And regarding HIPAA, the federal law that guarantees health privacy, one critical point about it is that entities – hospitals, businesses, etc. – cannot disclose personal health information. However, people can disclose their own information; further, people can ask other people about their information. If a person declines to answer, that’s legally OK, too.
This has become a much bigger hullabaloo than it needs to be, aided by social media’s outrage and the confirmation that some crave from it.
The elected leaders who received the survey could easily answer one of three ways: A) yes. B) no. C) I prefer not to say.
We can ask politicians their stance on abortion or same-sex marriage, but not whether they have the vaccine? This is the question that blows up the internet?
Either way, we reserve the right to ask.