High-risk Californians feel left behind by vaccination plan

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Traffic controller Max Estrada stops drivers arriving without a face mask for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment at the mass vaccination site at the parking lot of L.A. County Office of Education headquarters in Downey, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. More than five weeks into its vaccination program, California doesn’t have nearly the supply to meet demand and there’s growing angst among residents over the difficulty to even get in line for a shot. Social media is awash with people seeking or giving tips on how to maneuver the system. Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it is finally starting to seem like vaccines might be the glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel that most of us have been anticipating for the last year. They’re a chance to believe that we might actually have a method of containing and even someday soon beating this pandemic, which has so violently struck our country for the last year after killing over 460,000 people, according to the New York Times. 

And yet almost as soon as it became clear that vaccines that were effective against COVID-19 were coming, debates began over their distribution; most importantly, who would be eligible to get them first, second, third, etc. Would the focus be on vaccinating older Americans? Healthcare workers? Essential workers? People with underlying conditions and disabilities?  

It will always be a difficult task to decide who is the first to get a potentially life-saving vaccine, especially when there are so many people and groups who desperately need it. California’s plan, which was released in late January, has taken the stance that vaccinations should be based only on the age of the person getting the vaccination and not including anyone who is younger but has a medical condition that makes them more at risk for the coronavirus.  

The state switched to an age-based program in late January, which means that the ability to be vaccinated opens based on your age with no concern for underlying conditions that people might have. This was, unsurprisingly, met with immediate backlash from the disabled community, who felt as though the new plan, which was intended to make the vaccination campaign easier and more seamless, leaves them behind.  

Alice Wong, a disabled activist who lives in California and who has a neuromuscular disease that causes her to require a ventilator to live, said in an interview with KQED, “I don’t understand the science and logic behind this decision, and I don’t understand why people do not see us and value us.” 

The situation was made worse this week, when the statewide vaccine advisory board rejected a push by disabled activists to allow people who are disabled and at high risk of contracting COVID-19 to go to the front of the line with older Americans.  

While older Americans are absolutely at increased risk to get, and die from, the coronavirus, so are disabled people. A study released on the Jan. 31 found that the “the increased risk for mortality among IHSS and DDS service recipients puts them in a risk category equivalent to other Californians in a higher age group.”

Determining vaccine eligibility based solely on age leaves behind many groups, not just those with disabilities. But considering that disabled people are massively at risk for suffering long-term damage or death from COVID-19, it feels especially egregious to bump them down the list in the name of making a state-wide vaccine rollout easier.  

This was never going to be an easy process, as nothing with the coronavirus pandemic has been. I cannot imagine the difficulty that coordinating an effort to vaccinate the most populated state in this country is, but that is not and will never be an excuse to take the simpler path if that path risks the lives of innocent people who are disabled, many of whom have spent the last year having to be incredibly isolated. 

Governor Newsom must reconsider his state’s plans to vaccinate based solely on the age of the recipient and without a concern for the risk status of so many in his state. According to the CDC, 23% of Californians are disabled, although it’s important to note that disabled by the CDC standards is a very specific set of requirements which both likely includes people who aren’t necessarily higher risk, like someone who is deaf, and excludes chronically ill people who are higher risk.  

No matter how many people are being put at risk by this decision, it is too many. States should be making vaccination decisions based on who is most at risk and therefore who is helped most by the vaccine, not by a metric used only to try and make a process, that will never be uncomplicated, easier.  

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