Disability advocates say the state’s new vaccination protocol announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom Monday leaves out individuals with underlying health conditions.
The state’s plan prioritizes those 65 and older, health care workers, emergency services employees, food and agriculture workers and teachers and school staff. After that, the state will vaccinate by age and not occupation or health status.
The change was enacted “to reach the pace needed to vaccinate all Californians in a timely manner,” Gov. Newsom said in a news release.
“There are people who, even within age groups, you can still sub-prioritize,” Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg told the News-Press. “Not every 65 year old has the same health status.
“It’s difficult to just do it by age, but it’s also difficult on a large scale to get too nuanced because you lose the efficiency of vaccinating people as soon as possible.”
Critics argue that an age-based system disadvantages younger individuals with health conditions that were previously prioritized in the old protocol’s Phase 1C.
Andy Imparato, executive director of Disability Rights California, is one of a handful of disability advocates on California’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee.
He told the News-Press that a couple of the representatives from disability rights organizations threatened to leave the committee when they felt ignored.
“We talk a lot, but us being heard by the co-chairs, it feels like we’re just starting to be heard,” he said.
Residents across California are speaking out as well, taking to Twitter with the hashtag #HighRiskCA to share their experiences. Alice Wong, disabled activist and founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, started the trend to bring awareness to the issue.
The social media campaign spread rapidly Wednesday as individuals shared their diagnoses, many saying they’ve barely left home since March — a predicament when doctors appointments impact one’s quality of life.
So when the state stripped away Phase 1C, setting immunocompromised and disabled individuals with the general, people became confused, disappointed, and even angry.
When Disability Rights California saw the governor’s announcement Monday, Mr. Imparato said his coworkers were “really upset, and there was a lot of anger about it.”
They began working to catch the state’s attention, hoping Gov. Newsom would realize he made what they considered a mistake.
“We’re just arguing that people with the same risk of dying should be in line alongside (the elderly),” Mr. Imparato said.
The vaccine distribution also makes concessions to promote equity across income levels and ethnicities. But he argues that disability should be part of that consideration.
Members of the Community Vaccine Advisory Committee “used the word equity on every call without realizing that disability is part of equity,” he said.
He anticipates an announcement from the state soon accommodating Californians with underlying health conditions. Even then, he is worried that the vaccines won’t reach disabled people.
“We’re going to have to stay vigilant on the equity issue,” he said. “We also get the vaccine to them.”
Dr. Ansorg echoed the need for accessible vaccination sites in the future.
“It’s difficult for someone who is disabled to wait in line at big vaccination clinics. It would make more sense to do more small, pop-up or mobile clinics which makes it more cumbersome but important,” he said.
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department follows the vaccination guidelines from the state, which currently is authorizing vaccines for people over the age of 65, residents of congregate care facilities and health care workers. Currently, Santa Barbara County is only vaccinating those 75 and older.
“As Santa Barbara County has a high percentage of people over 75, we can’t go younger. In an ideal world, if we had more vaccines, that would be done in a couple of weeks,” he said.
He is most concerned with the shortage of vaccines. He estimates it will take until March or April to start vaccinating those younger than 65.
Mark Rothstein, Herbert F. Boehl chair of Law and Medicine at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and former policy editor for American Journal of Public Health, formerly advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to prioritize treatment.
“We can all say very easily that everybody should get it, but not everybody can go first. You have to draw distinctions,” he said. “For the vaccine, it could be who’s most likely to become infected or who’s most likely to have a bad result if infected.”
Reactions to COVID-19 have been measured by age. There isn’t data to support vaccinating disabled individuals early.
“We don’t have much data on disability, and that’s not our fault,” said Mr. Imparato. “It feels like we got punished a lot for not having data.”
In the National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness on Jan. 21, officials called for collection of data across underserved populations — including the disabled.
The national strategy, in chapter six, calls for equitable policies and affirms adults with chronic health conditions as vulnerable. It sends the CDC to help states update pandemic plans to describe equitable policy.