Safe and Unsafe

safe and unsafe people

As the pandemic enters its second year, we’re approaching an inevitable bifurcation of our society: “Presumed Safe” (those who have been vaccinated or exposed to the virus), and “Presumed Unsafe” (those who have not been vaccinated or have not been exposed to the virus). Two distinct groups that are going to test us in ways we’ve only read about in history books.

Unfortunately, we’ve been given conflicting information over the past year. But the current wisdom (from the CDC and Dr. Fauci) is that after you’ve been vaccinated, you should still follow all of the CDC safety precautions, including wearing a mask (double masking increases protection), social distancing, and washing hands. You can get the very latest information here. Those who have been vaccinated and follow the guidelines are considered to be as safe as is possible under the circumstances.

More unfortunately, last year’s various misinformation campaigns have left us with several relatively large groups of people who, for their own reasons, reject the safety precautions, don’t want to be vaccinated, don’t trust the vaccine, or simply deny that COVID-19 is a health issue.

So, in practice, the country has already self-assembled into two groups: Safe and Unsafe. However, now that it’s time to reopen and get back to the doing of life, we have some decisions to make about how to fix the problem (not how to fix the blame).

Management Decisions

Some very difficult management decisions are already surfacing. NBC News reported that a young waitress working at New York’s Red Hook Tavern was fired after telling her supervisors that she wanted to wait before getting vaccinated. Her employer had every right to fire her, and she understood that. She said, “I do support the vaccine. I’m not, as they say, an anti-vaxxer.” Her reason for wanting to wait? She is trying to get pregnant. She told NBC News that she feels there is still a lack of research about how the vaccine affects pregnant women.

I asked several medical professionals about her concern, and each said something to the effect of, “The vaccine is probably safe for pregnant women, but I really don’t know.” And none could cite any peer-reviewed research that might address her concerns.

So, are we going to fire people who have health concerns that have not yet been researched? Do they deserve to be grouped with anti-vaxxers? Even if they double-mask and follow CDC safety protocols, are they still to be considered unsafe? By the numbers they will be less safe than people who have been vaccinated. How will your HR department handle this?

Policy Concerns

The current labor laws are pretty clear: “at will” employees can be fired “at will.” No reasons are needed. So the most vulnerable workers can now be segmented into two classes. What about government employees? Interstate or international travelers? Or school teachers? What about vaccination requirements for school children (which at this writing have not been FDA approved)?

Segregation and Integration

The self-assembled safe and unsafe groups we have today are relatively easy to understand and to deal with. But as we move closer and closer to herd immunity, it is less easy to understand how these two groups get re-integrated.

Vaccine passports will tell us who has been vaccinated. But right now, these apps are voluntary. And who, other than the hardcore anti-vaxxers, is going to agree to identify as “unsafe”?

You’re out with a group of friends, you want to go to a restaurant, and there’s a bouncer requiring everyone to show their vaccine passports. Only vaccinated people may enter.

I have so many problems with this idea it’s hard to list them all. But let’s start with where the moral obligation begins and ends. The bouncer says, “Sorry. You’re unsafe. You may not enter.” So, you and your friends head across the street to a bar that does not have any entry restrictions and create a potential superspreader event.

There are innumerable ways for scenarios like this to go wrong, and almost no ways for them to go right. The labeling of safe and unsafe people is set up to fail both technically and morally.

We Are Not All in the Same Boat!

I saw a meme yesterday that said, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some have yachts. Some have canoes. Some are drowning.” This has always been true. We each perform according to our gifts. But as the pandemic abates, we will face new challenges. Hopefully, we’ll have enough lifeboats for everyone.

Would you like to attend an online salon where your colleagues and corporate peers are discussing this topic? Request credentials here.

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit


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