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Guest opinion

People with disabilities unfair target of Arizona's COVID 'crisis standards of care'

Almost 30 years ago, Americans who had suffered injustice throughout our nation's history were finally recognized as full and valued members of society. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act afforded individuals with a wide range of disabilities protections against bias, lack of access to essential services, and archaic attitudes regarding their worth as human beings.

Today, in the age of COVID-19, we are in danger of reversing decades of this progress – consigning individuals from vulnerable populations once again to the status of less deserving, especially where access to limited healthcare resources are concerned.

In so doing, we risk condemning these individuals to lingering, excruciating illness or even death in preference to those we deem "acceptable".

Arizona is experiencing a frightening rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.

With this increase comes greater demand on the state's healthcare resources. Within a matter of the past few weeks, the number of cases statewide has more than doubled. Already the number of available ICU beds is dwindling as new patients are admitted every day.

A large number of medical professionals have called upon the state to implement the "crisis" level of its Crisis Standards of Care Plan – the document that outlines how and to whom limited healthcare resources are to be allocated in the event of a crisis, such as a pandemic or natural disaster.

As currently written, however, the CSC is gravely concerning to advocates for Arizonans with disabilities, those from communities of color, and older adults – all of whom are at high risk of infection and death from COVID-19, all of whom have historically experienced broad discrimination, and all of whom have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Arizonans from these populations need clear and specific protections listed within Arizona's CSC guidelines, especially during this pandemic.

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This plan must be revised to ensure decisions on the allocation of healthcare are not based on disability, perceived quality of life, or underlying conditions.

It must not allow for subjective assessments of a patient's likely lifespan or the potential need for ongoing medical resources after discharge. The plan must provide reasonable accommodations for individuals who require affective communication, personal or mobility assistance.

It must, in short, clearly and unequivocally state that the goal of healthcare decision-making is to save lives – not to make judgements about whether those lives are worth saving.

Individuals from certain populations are far more likely to suffer the most severe impacts of the COVID-19 virus. They also are the most likely to be viewed as expendable.

We need to continue to ensure that Arizonans with disabilities are acknowledged as equal citizens, and as a nation, recognize that all individuals, regardless of disability or age, make a contribution to the richness of our society. And just like with other civil rights laws, we need to be explicit in the Crisis Standards of Care about protections to ensure discrimination does not happen here.

Jon Meyers is the executive director of The Arc of Arizona; J.J. Rico is CEO of the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

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