COVID-19 is a virus that doesn’t discriminate. Anybody can get it at any time.
Luckily there are things we can do to help reduce the spread and avoid serious illness and death. Things like getting the COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot, wearing a mask, avoiding crowds and indoor places and washing hands often all contribute to fighting the virus.
Recognizing and understanding the stigma attached to a positive COVID-19 test can also have a major impact on slowing the spread of the virus.
“We must understand the next phase of preventing the spread of COVID-19 is ending the stigma. This usually comes with having COVID-19 and sharing with our close contacts that we have tested positive and that they may have been exposed,” said Kathy Blanford, RN, an infection preventionist for OSF HealthCare.
What is COVID-19 stigma?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, “Stigma can make people more likely to hide symptoms or illness, keep them from seeking health care immediately, and prevent individuals from adopting healthy behaviors.”
This stigma can make it feel like coming down with COVID-19 makes us unclean, irresponsible, dirty or shunned from society. We may worry about how people will react when we tell them we have COVID-19. We may think not telling our contacts avoids extra worry or interruptions in their lives.
But that’s not true. Being honest about showing symptoms, getting tested or testing positive helps to avoid spreading further worry, stigma and, most importantly, the virus.
And it’s not just our worries of being stigmatized by other people. We can stigmatize ourselves, too.
We let ourselves think: How did I let this happen? What did I do wrong? What more could I have done?
How is COVID-19 stigma harmful?
Because of this stigma, we may be reluctant to tell people when we have COVID-19. We may downplay our symptoms, say it’s just a cold or allergies or not even tell anyone anything at all.
“Keeping quiet about your diagnosis can and will undermine our community’s effort to reduce the number of positive cases,” Kathy said.
Doing our part to end the stigma is about taking care of ourselves and others in our communities.
“We have learned that one way to look beyond ourselves is to share with those we have been in close contact to within 48 hours of our symptom onset or positive COVID-19 test result. There should never be any secrecy or shame associated with sharing that information,” Kathy said.
It’s especially important to be upfront with others about testing positive for the virus when our symptoms are mild. We may feel healthy enough to continue daily life and may see it as “not a big deal” to tell our contacts. Even if we aren’t experiencing severe symptoms, though, we can still spread it to someone who will experience more severe symptoms because of being immunocompromised or in a more vulnerable population.
What does ending the stigma look like?
If someone tells you they have contracted COVID-19, the first thing to do is be understanding. Don’t point fingers or blame. Second, encourage them to quarantine, follow all CDC guidelines and take extra safety precautions, like wearing masks and staying quarantined until they test negative.
If you test positive or start showing symptoms, be honest with those you have had contact with in the last 48 hours before symptoms started. That includes anyone you were around for 15 minutes face to face and less than 6 feet apart.
“Keep in mind family, friends, co-workers, retail personnel and any others you can think of,” Kathy said.
Even if it means missing work or school, health and safety – of you, your family and your community – should always come first. So even if you’re uncomfortable sharing your experience of symptoms or positive diagnosis, it’s important to quarantine immediately and be honest. If each of us commits to being honest with our communities and contacts, we can make a significant impact in stopping the spread of the virus and the stigma that goes with it.