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Guest opinion

Individuals with disabilities must be prioritized for COVID vaccine by Az officials

Sey In is a staff attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

People with disabilities being discriminated against in healthcare contexts is nothing new. Last year, during the COVID-19 surges, state officials were determining crisis standards of care in case of ventilator shortages. One state even sought to exclude individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities from triaging based on ableist perceptions of a lack of quality of life.

And now in 2021, the disability community is facing issues with equitable vaccine distribution.

Since December 2020, organizations have been vying for prioritization for their respective communities. After the Arizona Department of Health Services submitted their vaccine distribution plan, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, along with other disability rights organizations, noted several concerns and on December 14, sent a letter asking ADHS to prioritize individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, those who live in secure behavioral health facilities, and individuals who are homebound.

For months, ADHS did not respond to our letter.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities often have other underlying medical conditions that places them at greater risk if they contract COVID.

These individuals often have unpaid caregivers providing support and because of the current vaccination plan, the caregivers do not receive prioritization placing their loved ones at greater risk. People who live in secure behavioral facilities often experience difficulties maintaining social distancing given their proximity to one another and they interact with healthcare professionals and other individuals who come into these facilities, potentially brining in the virus with them. Those who are homebound face struggles with getting the vaccine since ADHS does not provide guidance on vaccinating these individuals.

On March 1, Arizona moved to an age-based hybrid approach.

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Dr. Cara Christ, director of ADHS, stated in a press conference that this new approach would reduce confusion. However, on March 11, President Joe Biden announced that he would direct states to open vaccine eligibility to all adults. Following that announcement, Gov. Doug Ducey stated that Arizona has the infrastructure to carry out this directive, but he emphasized that eligibility does not translate to immediate access to the vaccine.

This underscores two important problems. First, there is no telling when all people with disabilities will get the vaccine as booking appointments is extremely difficult and vaccine availability is scarce. Second, this means weeks, potentially months, of waiting while the threat of contracting COVID looms and Arizona faces new and growing variants. 

While we applaud Pima County Health Department in being the first county to start prioritizing the COVID-19 vaccine for people with disabilities who are receiving long term service at home and Coconino County for prioritizing people with developmental disabilities, the ACDL wants the Governor’s Office and ADHS to recognize that the lives of people with disabilities matter and that we hope they collaborate with us and other disability rights organizations to ensure equitable vaccine distribution.

Sey In is a staff attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A volunteer at the University of Arizona vaccination site hands paperwork back to someone in line to receive the vaccine in February.