Equity falls short as Gov. Lamont’s age-based vaccine plan negatively impacts long-term care patients
By Sarah Canseco
Newswriting 2 / University of Connecticut
Weeks into Connecticut’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, disabled residents continue to feel angry, anxious and left behind as many voice concerns that Gov. Ned Lamont’s age-based vaccine plan undervalues the importance of equity.
Sylvia Norton, a 25-year-old Plainville resident with down syndrome was hoping she would be among the lucky 608,000 residents who have been vaccinated by now.
Originally scheduled to be eligible for the vaccine by March 1, Norton was forced to change her plans after the state decided to base prioritization on age as opposed to those with underlying medical conditions, as recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Put behind elderly patients, healthcare workers and teachers, Sylvia Norton now remains part of the 26% of young, disabled individuals forced to wait another two months.
“It’s disheartening really and just very, very sad,” said Sylvia Norton’s mother, Carrie Norton. “She was so close to getting it and now she has to wait even longer. All I can really tell you is that I am scared as hell. I’m scared for her to leave the house still, scared she still hasn’t gotten this— scared for her to do anything until then. That has been the past year of my life—constantly feeling like she’s some sort of ticking time bomb while trying my best to make sure she’s as safe as possible. It just isn’t fair; she could die without this.”
Since the start of the pandemic, disabled individuals have been some of the most susceptible individuals to COVID-19, remaining three times more likely to contract the virus in comparison to the general public.
Across all states, a total of 182,228 COVID-19 related deaths have been those with at least one physical, intellectual, or cognitive disability, allocating for almost 32% of total deaths seen in the last year.
“We feel so invisible—so helpless,” says Carrie Norton. “I have friends in Wisconsin—thousands of miles away questioning the value of their autistic child’s life because no one seems to be listening to them. I don’t understand why we have to try and prove why we deserve it as if my child’s entire life story isn’t proof enough. She doesn’t have the same health privileges as everyone else and trust me, this isn’t about special treatment, it’s about facts—it’s about life or death.”
Saad Omer, a Yale University epidemiologist has also questioned the state’s last-minute change.
As a member of the National Academy of Medicine’s committee for equitable vaccine allocation, Omer claims that Lamont’s lack of focus on equitable vaccine allocation severely harms the long-term effects of COVID-19.
“I’ll admit, basing vaccination rollouts on age does make things quicker,” said Omer. “But what happens when we ignore these younger populations who are at a higher risk for comorbidities is that we begin to disregard the people who have been dying the fastest, when really, they need to be our focus. They don’t have time to wait, so when we provide them with accessibility, everything else in the future becomes faster and more efficient. We eliminate the bigger issues and get to focus on the smaller ones. That is when we acquire speed, equity, and balance.”
With around 55% of the state’s COVID-19 related deaths being disabled residents in long-term care facilities, Omer argues that by putting these individuals first, mortality and infection rates can dramatically decrease in the long run.
By allocating COVID-19 vaccinations to the largest and most vulnerable communities, this would eliminate immediate health risks within these larger populations while also preventing risk of transmission into smaller communities.
“Disabled residents make up about 11% of the population,” says Omer. “Their population is almost just as big as elderly residents, yet they are dying at least two times faster than they are. If we put these individuals at the back of the line, we aren’t just putting them at risk, but we’re putting others in harm’s way too. Mortality and infection rates will only continue to rise and that’s when this goes beyond health, but it becomes a social issue because no one is asking about 400,000 people what they need.”
According to Omer, mortality and infection rates attached to COVID-19 are not caused by the pandemic itself, but decades of disproportionate access to healthcare resources.
For years, many disabled residents have faced physical barriers, lack of access to transportation, little guidance in booking appointments, inadequate knowledge of health workers, prohibitive costs and limited availability of services among a variety of other challenges.
Many families like Carrie Norton’s feel alone and ‘left to fend for themselves.’ She believes that by listening to families and broadening access to resources, many challenges may dissolve as vaccination appointments become more readily available.
“If we can help elderly individuals get the treatment they need, then we can do it for disabled individuals too,” says Omer. Discrimination in healthcare is all too real and it’s a virus of its own especially when the tools we need to target these marginalized populations are right in front of us. By directly removing the barriers that prevent these people from receiving lifesaving treatment, not only can equitable healthcare begin to take space, but we’ll see death rates lower, and rate of transmission begin to slow down. Helping those most vulnerable is a win for everyone, we just need to put our foot in the water.”