Advocates worry as most disabled people left off vaccine priority list

OTTAWA — Advocates for disabled people and those with disabled loved ones are all calling for governments to include disabled people in the initial phases of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Laura Kirby-McIntosh has two adult children with autism and worries what might happen if they were to contract a serious case of COVID-19.

“They would have to go into the hospital alone, without my support, or without the support of someone to explain to them what was going on,” Kirby-McIntosh told CTV News.

“Imagine if you had a loved one with a disability who was non-verbal.”

On Monday, Canada’s national advisory committee on immunization released updated guidance for vaccine prioritization and disabled people living in group homes are mentioned under “Stage 2,” but there is no direct mention of those not living in a group home.

“I would think it would be common sense to prioritize the disability community but it doesn’t appear to be … on the government’s radar,” said Kirby-McIntosh.

Advocates argue that disabled people should be included in the initial stages of vaccination because some disabled people struggle with public health measures such as wearing a mask and physical distancing.

“You’re talking about all these complexities of risks and all we’re trying to do is say: ‘You need to put a lens on the disability population, so that they’re not forgotten when you prioritize,’” said Jill Farber, executive director of Autism Speaks Canada. 

Carla Qualtrough, minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, believes disabled people should be given vaccine priority, but admits it’s not clearly spelled out in the recommendations.

“If it helps for me to clarify right now, I can tell you for sure that we intended to have people with disabilities included,” she said.

There’s also evidence to suggest some disabled people are more at risk to the virus.

A recent study of insured patients in the United States found that people with developmental disabilities were three times more likely to die from COVID-19, while a research letter in Annals of Internal Medicine indicated that people with Down syndrome are 10 times more likely to die from the virus, based on data from England.

“Susceptibility to pneumonia and respiratory diseases are typically higher,” said Scott D. Landes, an associate professor of sociology with the Aging Studies Institute at Syracuse University.

According to Statistics Canada, there are about 6.2 million disabled people aged 15 and above in Canada.

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