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Kate Phillips at her Ajax, Ont., home on April 14, 2021.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Kate Phillips learned earlier this month that she is now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination because she lives in a hot spot neighbourhood, she felt a sense of relief and elation – and those feelings were quickly followed by a pang of moral guilt.

Did she deserve to get vaccinated when there are so many other people in high-risk populations still waiting to get the jab?

“I think that the vaccine should go to the higher-risk groups,” said Ms. Phillips, a mother of two who lives in Ajax, Ont. Nevertheless, she plans on registering for a vaccine as soon as possible.

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As more people become eligible for vaccination, it has prompted a wave of moral hand-wringing among those who wonder if they deserve to be vaccinated ahead of others. It is an understandable response, but a misguided one, according to infectious-disease experts and public-health officials. If you do qualify, absolutely get vaccinated for your benefit and the benefit of everyone around you, they say.

“There are almost no circumstances under which you shouldn’t get vaccinated,” Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto, said in an e-mail. Having an active infection, such as a bad cold or recent case of COVID-19, are examples of when someone might want to hold off, but those are temporary circumstances. “Apart from that, even if vaccine supply is low, it should only be deferred if it is clear that others in greater need are being missed and you are confident you can maintain a self-isolation or stay-at-home protocol very stringently for several weeks. I think this is unlikely for most.”

People who think getting vaccinated is selfish need to understand that doing so benefits themselves and others by limiting transmission to everyone over all, including those at higher risk, he said.

“Remember that much like the chain of transmission may start with you and end with someone at very high risk many links away that may be hard to imagine, so is the chain of protection with vaccines.”

Ms. Phillips and her husband are both eager to receive the vaccine for this very reason. Her husband works outside the home as an appliance repair technician.

“That’s putting him at risk, it’s putting me at risk, it’s putting our kids at risk and our parents who we sometimes rely on for child care,” she said.

Getting vaccinated should be seen as a way of helping the broader community, particularly since there are some people who cannot get vaccinated because of health conditions, said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health. The more people who get vaccinated, the closer we get to herd immunity. That’s when people who haven’t been vaccinated are protected against COVID-19 because so many people have received the shot.

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The herd immunity level varies from disease to disease. For example, for the measles, it is estimated that approximately 95 per cent of the population must be immune to interrupt the chain of transmission. The level for COVID-19 is unknown. So far, nearly 20 per cent of Canada’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to government data.

“When your eligibility window opens, please go take advantage of that. Get vaccinated. That’s how we establish herd immunity. We want as many people as quickly as possible vaccinated in our community. It protects you and frankly it protects all of us as a community,” Dr. de Villa said.

Judi Susla understands that when she received the vaccination earlier this month it helped others, but she still feels a twinge of guilt about it.

“If I could have given it to a teacher [I would have],” said Ms. Susla, a stay-at-home mother in Oakville, Ont.

People who feel moral qualms about getting vaccinated should do what they can to help others navigate the system, said Dr. Anita Ho, an associate professor at the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia.

That could mean helping a neighbour to book a time online, or offering to drive someone to an appointment. It could also mean calling your MPP and demanding child-care workers get vaccinated. Such efforts are much more helpful than opting out of line, Dr. Ho said.

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“That is a more effective way to make sure that people who are at high risk can get vaccinated.”

Ultimately, we need to change the way we think about getting vaccinated, she said.

“We need to also change the language about who is deserving of vaccine. Because at the end of the day, everyone should get the vaccine. In many ways, people getting the vaccine is not ‘I deserve this,’ it’s ‘I’m doing my civic responsibility. I’m being a good neighbour to make sure other people might not get sick from me.’ ”

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