How to tell people you have COVID-19

Julie Compton

Afraid to tell people you’ve got COVID-19, the deadly virus that’s killed over a million people worldwide? You're not alone. Niro Feliciano, a cognitive psychotherapist and host of the podcast “Coping With The New Normal of COVID-19,” has treated multiple patients who’ve been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and she told TODAY that many of them are afraid that sharing the news will turn them into pariahs.

“It's often been described as our ‘Scarlet Letter’ of 2020,” said Feliciano. “People are often labeled as if they did something wrong, and then ostracized on some level. And now, with all the kids in school, it's even worse because your actions can literally shut down a dozen classrooms.”

Breaking the news

If you’ve been diagnosed with the virus, the first thing to understand, said Feliciano, is that it isn’t necessarily your fault — even people who’ve followed COVID-19 safety protocols have gotten the virus. Additionally, she said, it's worth considering that any of the people you need to inform may be asymptomatic carriers who gave the virus to you.

Whether you’re breaking the news to a boss, a teacher, daycare worker, family or friend, she said, “I think the way you go about that conversation is very similar.” There are, however, a few specifics to consider.

Family and friends

If you share a home with others — either family members or roommates — tell them about your diagnosis immediately, and figure out a process to quarantine within your home, if possible.

Work, school and daycare

If you or your children have symptoms, find out if your place of work, school or daycare has a formal policy on how to proceed. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise staying home and notifying your employer, school or daycare right away.

Related: Do you really need to wear a mask at home? Infectious disease experts say yes, in certain circumstances.

Tips for talking about your diagnosis

While it may seem overwhelming and stressful, the consequences of withholding your diagnosis — or waiting too long to disclose it — can wreak havoc on your relationships, said Feliciano.

“If they know that you tested and knew that you were positive, and didn't tell them, that affects every ounce of trust in the relationship,” she said. “It's really difficult to have a friendship without trust, and it's a certain kind of trust, it's the trust that that person is looking out for your well-being.”

To help make the conversation a little easier, Feliciano offered these five tips:

1. Keep it simple and honest

Don’t overcomplicate the message with unnecessary details and explanations. Call, text or email the people you need to notify and let them know you’ve tested positive. Encourage them to take precautions, quarantine and get tested themselves — and to alert others they may have been infected. Anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 (within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes) should consider getting tested, according to the CDC.

Related: Staying put due to COVID-19? Here's how to let them down with love.

2. Know that everyone will respond differently

How someone responds to your diagnosis will depend on the person, said Feliciano. Those who are prone to anxiety may overreact, while others may not worry enough. “Be open to the fact that people are operating out of different fear levels themselves, different levels of anxiety,” she said.

3. Prepare for a barrage of questions

Where were you when you got infected? Who were you with? What kind of test did you take? Were you wearing a mask? Feliciano pointed out that these are just some of the questions people are probably going to ask after learning about your diagnosis. Other questions, she warned, may get personal.

“And that's up to your discretion to decide how much you disclose,” she said. She also added that it may be helpful to create a timeline around when you think you were exposed, including where you were and who you were with, to clarify things in your mind. “Some of the questions — and also the tone in which they're asked — can be stressful in that moment, and it may kind of cloud your ability to think clearly,” she said.

4. Focus on what you can control

Telling people you have the coronavirus is difficult. You can’t control how they’ll react, but there are some things that are within your control. Taking responsibility and informing them about your diagnosis is one example. How you convey the information is another. Feliciano recommended staying focused on the things you can control.

“Many times when people get fearful, their mind races to the worst-case scenario,” said Feliciano. “What I usually direct patients to think about is, ‘Okay, what is my reality right now in this moment, am I in that worst-case scenario? Do I know that I've infected these people for sure?’”

Related: Restaurants may be open for indoor dining, but that doesn't mean it's entirely without risk to do so.

Some people may get angry and blame you for potentially exposing them, but they’re simply reacting out of their own fear, said Feliciano. By informing them about your diagnosis, she added, “you've done the responsible thing, you've done the right thing, you've looked out for their well-being. And at that point, I mean, it's kind of no longer your problem. They're going to react out of their own stuff.”

5. Don’t sit in shame

It’s natural to feel guilty, but Feliciano said blaming yourself and others who may have infected you isn’t helpful. Guilt can be a productive emotion that motivates people to change their behavior, she said, but shaming can have the opposite effect. It can be demotivating and harmful.

“I think that's important,” she said. “We don't want to sit in shame, because (getting infected) can happen to anybody.”