My 89-year-old dad's roommate refuses to get vaccinated

A reader's dad survived COVID-19, and is still high-risk — but his roommate is flouting public health advice

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 15, 2021 7:00AM (EDT)

Old man and young man talking in the park, wearing masks (Getty Images)
Old man and young man talking in the park, wearing masks (Getty Images)

Dear Pandemic Problems,

My father is 89 years old. Over three months ago, he got COVID-19 and was hospitalized for a few days. Then he was in a nursing home. He almost did not make it out alive. Today, he's still struggling. Both my dad and his caretaker have received both vaccinations. The three of us here received the first dose, but we are waiting for our second dose.

I visit him daily with my ill brother, and I don't know what to do. I'm frightened because my dad's roommate will not agree to get vaccinated. She does not wear a mask in the house. She goes out shopping, does other things, but doesn't wear a mask inside the house. She's gone as far as bullying us, demanding her space, showering with the door open out of paranoia, and much more.

I don't know what to do.


Reeling About a Roommate

Dear Reeling About a Roommate,

First off, I'm so sorry you're going through this. I can't imagine how incredibly frustrating and helpless it must feel to have your vulnerable dad, who survived COVID-19 at age 89, live with someone who is not doing their part to protect others during this pandemic. The pain and anger are palpable through your letter, and I send you all the peace and comfort I can during this time. Of course, I know that it's going to be hard for you to sleep at night until your dad is in a better living situation.

I'm happy to hear your dad is vaccinated, and this will mostly protect him from his roommate. The Moderna vaccine is 94.1 percent effective at preventing COVID-19. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19. In the grand scheme of vaccines, these ones are highly effective. Technically there is a roughly five percent chance that the vaccine won't work at preventing the illness. But in those cases, the infections are typically mild or without symptoms at all.  Admittedly, we know now that the vaccines may not protect forever — current studies suggest they confer immunity for at least six months. In any case, it sounds like you're not at that point yet. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states it's OK for a fully vaccinated person to mingle inside with unvaccinated people from one household. The only exception is if any of the unvaccinated people have an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. If I apply this guidance to your father's situation, this would mean that it's OK for the roommate to walk around the house unmasked when only your father is home. However, it's not OK for the roommate to do this when you and your brother, who you say has health issues, are visiting. And this is all to say that the bullying, demanding of space, and showering without a door open, is certainly not OK, too. Overall, it doesn't sound like a good living situation for your dad. I also know that moving your 89-year-old dad who's still struggling with post-COVID symptoms during a pandemic isn't an ideal solution, but more on that later.

While the CDC states vaccinated people at any age are usually safe from one unvaccinated household, I would chat with your dad's doctor about your concerns.  

It sounds like if your dad's roommate was vaccinated, you'd be more OK with the living situation. And if that's the case, my first recommendation would be to talk to the roommate and see how open she would be to getting the shot. The first step to talking to someone who is hesitant about the vaccine is to listen. When you're all feeling less emotionally charged, perhaps you can have a conversation with this woman and ask why she doesn't want to get the vaccine? From there, make sure to give her space to share her concerns.

Many guides on discussing vaccines with the vaccine-hesitant advise responding with empathy, and putting an emphasis on "safety" especially if that's a concern. As the World Health Organization advises: "Emphasizing the existing scientific agreement on vaccine safety and efficiency can strongly influence people's attitudes towards vaccinations. You should emphasize how overwhelmingly the evidence supports vaccine safety and efficacy – not just one or two studies – and that the vast majority of scientists and clinicians in the field agree with this."

Another tidbit to focus on during this conversation is that getting vaccinated doesn't only protect her, but your family as well as people she comes into contact with everyday. If this doesn't work, I would advise getting your dad's doctor involved.

If the roommate is totally set on not getting vaccinated, it might be time to think about if she's the right roommate for your dad. I don't know the landlord situation, but it's normally acceptable to break a lease if a roommate is putting a tenant's health at risk. Again, you might need a note from a doctor speaking to this point to give to the landlord or property manager, but it shouldn't be a problem.

I don't know where you're located, but it might be worth looking into a local tenant rights' union and seeing what your dad's rights are regarding the apartment. Can he stay, or can he ask the roommate to find a new home?

Unfortunately, these kinds of situations between people who share a space are becoming more common. The pandemic has revealed that not everyone is aligned on trusting public health wisdom. This can create incredibly frustrating divides, as it has in your case. But casting judgement and blame won't help the situation.

You also mentioned that the roommate is "paranoid," which makes me wonder if there's an underlying mental health problem. But ultimately, as I told another Pandemic Problems reader, a roommate's behavior is out of your control. The only person's behavior you can control is your own.

I know it's a lot. Nobody wants to move during the pandemic, especially an 89-year-old. I truly hope it doesn't come down to that. But mostly, I hope you're able to stay strong during this time. I know the worrying and anxiety is exhausting. It leads to sleepless nights. I know you almost lost your dad to COVID-19, and you don't want to lose him due to the actions of a careless roommate. My heart breaks for you, but I know you'll weather this storm. May it pass faster than it has lingered.


Pandemic Problems

"Pandemic Problems" is an advice column that answers readers' pandemic questions — often with help from public health data, philosophy professors and therapists — who weigh in on how to "do the right thing."  Do you have a pandemic problem? Email Nicole Karlis at Peace of mind and collective commiseration awaits.

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By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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