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Medical experts work to change stigma around testing positive for COVID-19

Posted at 6:24 AM, Nov 25, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. — Medical experts say some people who test positive for COVID-19 often don’t tell people around them because they’re scared of being judged.

The stigma around COVID-19 isn’t a surprise to doctors. They say it’s pretty common in healthcare.

“You usually don’t talk about health conditions that you have even if they’re not contagious because you don’t want people to know,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, University of South Florida Professor of Public Health, Medicine, and Pharmacy.

However, in the case of COVID-19, not telling someone you’ve recently been around that you have the virus could lead to more spread.

The fear of judgment from others could cause people who test positive to keep up appearances by not quarantining, making it more difficult to control the outbreak.

“There’s the individual sense of stigma and guilt that maybe I did something wrong. I’m a careful person. Did I do something I shouldn’t have done? Did I place other people at risk?” said Wolfson.

Experts say the social stigma, negative associations and stereotypes that can come with a positive test result can make it difficult to tell.

According to the World Health Organization, the social stigma around a positive COVID-19 test result can lead to discrimination. It can drive people to hide their illness and prevent them from seeking medical care.

Wolfson says some people may assume someone got the virus by being irresponsible and not following public health measures. That stereotype alone could make someone not want to share their positive diagnosis.

If someone finds out you have the virus and you’re uncomfortable, experts say address it head on.

“The best thing is to say the honest thing if you’re confronted with it, but that doesn’t stop the external perception of us when we might be perceived as high risk. That includes healthcare workers, by the way,” said Wolfson.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are also groups of people who experience judgment and isolation because they have a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Those include:

  • Emergency responders or healthcare workers
  • Frontline workers like grocery store clerks and delivery drivers
  • People who have underlying health conditions that can cause a cough

“I think we have to take that stigma on both sides of that, my feeling potentially stigmatized and actually be perceived as being a high risk and therefore may be stigmatized because of that,” said Wolfson.

He says we’re going to have to go through a normalization process to fight the stigma.

“We have to get over this, and it’s going to take a while because many people who have it don’t know they have it. Many people with mild symptoms don’t know they have it,” said Wolfson.