(This Guest Column is contributed by Kara Karlson, disability advocate and election law attorney.)
Arizona has administered over 2 million COVID-19 vaccines. This is a huge milestone and great news. Unfortunately, despite promises from that the most vulnerable would be prioritized, pleas from multiple disability advocacy organizations have so far fallen on deaf ears. The failure to vaccinate our most vulnerable should (and can) be rectified immediately. It is the morally right thing to do, it saves taxpayer dollars, and would be simple to administer.
COVID-19 Disproportionately Affects People with Disabilities
COVID-19 poses a disproportionate burden on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. People with disabilities may be more likely to be infected with COVID-19 because many require care from people outside the home, use mass transit, or work jobs without a telework option. We know that (0-17 years old) with intellectual and developmental disabilities (“I/DD”) are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than other children.
People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are also much more likely to suffer adverse outcomes than people without disabilities. Evidence early in the pandemic indicated that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were more likely to die from COVID-19. This early finding has been confirmed by research. Arizona recently prioritized vaccination for people with Down’s Syndrome, who are more likely to die from COVID-19. This is a step in the right direction, but it leaves many others in the disabled community unprotected.
The increased risk of death is most marked in with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who are ten times more likely to die from COVID-19 than other children. The increased likelihood of death for children, who can’t yet get vaccinated, makes it very important that their caretakers are prioritized. Despite the clear and urgent need to prioritize people with I/DD, they are not currently a priority for state health officials.
Savings to the State
In addition to being the right thing to do for people with disabilities, it is also the right thing to do for Arizona’s taxpayers. Care for people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 is , and often includes long-term . This care is more expensive if complicated by other health conditions that many people with I/DD have. On the other hand, COVID-19 vaccines between $10 and $30 per dose. A of have recognized the value of prioritizing people with I/DD for COVID-19 vaccines, and Arizona should join their ranks.
A simple way to verify eligibility for vaccination would be to allow people 16 years of age and older (or caregivers to younger DDD members) use their Division of Developmental Disabilities (“DDD”) insurance card to be vaccinated.
To be a DDD member, a person must be diagnosed with at least one of the following : cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, or intellectual disabilities. In addition to the diagnosis, a member must have “significant limitations in daily life skills” such as an inability to communicate, requiring significant help with bathing, and needing daily supervision for their safety. DDD members are significantly more likely to have multiple comorbidities that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.
The state vaccine portal already requires anyone who is registering for an appointment to provide their insurance information. DDD Members have unique Member IDs, and the group name “AZDDD” on their insurance card immediately identifies them as a DDD Member. The state portal should recognize DDD Members and allow them to make an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination. Alternatively, the member could show their insurance card at the vaccination site.
Call to Action
Under the current vaccination schedule, thousands of Arizona’s most vulnerable people remain susceptible to a virus that could kill them or add health complications to a population already coping with significant, chronic health conditions. The new age-based approach taken by the state in some ways exacerbates this disparity. There is no scientifically-based reason a healthy middle-aged person should qualify for vaccination before a person with severe developmental disabilities. Given the increased risk of hospitalization and death DDD Members face as a result of their disabilities—and the fact that the infrastructure exists to allow the state to reserve these vaccines for those who qualify—there is no excuse to not prioritize DDD members for COVID-19 vaccines.
If you want to help make a difference for people with I/DD, please join the community. We need everyone involved, and contacting their government health and elected officials, to make a difference.