Disability Network Oakland and Macomb’s Center for Independent Living is located at 709 John R Road in Troy.

Disability Network Oakland and Macomb’s Center for Independent Living is located at 709 John R Road in Troy.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

Disability Network pens letter requesting vaccine priority for disabled Michiganders

By: Jonathan Shead | Metro | Published February 23, 2021


METRO DETROIT — A letter of appeal requesting that disabled Michiganders, and their caregivers, be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine has been sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ offices.

The letter was sent by Disability Network Michigan and its 15 centers for independent living, including Disability Network Oakland and Macomb, across the state. DNM serves 1.9 million disabled residents across the state. Last year, the Oakland and Macomb office served 1,100 disabled individuals.

According to a press release, the letter requested that state officials review their current vaccine distribution policies to allow the prioritization of all people ages 16-64 with disabilities to be changed from phase 1C to 1B, whether they reside in congregate care or not.

“It’s our responsibility to bring visibility to disability,” Disability Network Oakland and Macomb Community Relations Director Chip Werner said. “The biggest concern we have is addressing those folks who are living with comorbidities, who need that access to care and prevention. That’s really the big driving focus we have behind this mission right now.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people might be at increased risk of contracting an illness, like COVID-19, if they have limited mobility or are unable to avoid close contact with others who may be infected; they have trouble understanding information or practicing preventative measures; or they can’t communicate the symptoms of an illness they’re experiencing.

Prioritizing the vaccine for those living with disability is only half the battle, DNOM Associate Director Amy Maes said.

“It goes beyond the high risk category that so many of the individuals we serve are in, but also the idea that there’s caregivers who these individuals rely on to come into their home every single day, and there’s no choice,” she said. “There’s really that dynamic of care that also complicates and creates an urgency in this situation.”

Work is being done at the state level to help combat some of these issues, DNOM Executive Director Kelly Winn added, but groups like caregivers and parents have yet to be addressed.

“We’ve had a very active voice, and we’re seeing tremendous gains made. We just want to call attention to the fact that we do have this community that does need additional services,” Werner said.

The letter also called for the MDHHS to provide funding for grassroots vaccine outreach and education that would allow local centers for independent living to promote and help Michiganders receive the vaccine.

One example of this outreach and education will be DNOM’s upcoming tele-town halls, taking place in March, which will help disabled people and their caregivers to understand the various changes in how COVID-19 is being handled and the new safety recommendations being passed down, like wearing two masks, as well as to dispel myths about the vaccine, inform why the vaccine is important and teach about herd immunity.

The tele-town halls will be held in partnership with Oak Street Health and PACE Southeast Michigan.

In February, MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun announced the state would begin a new program March 1 to enhance the state’s vaccine equity strategy.

“Workers in higher risk agricultural settings have been adversely impacted by this pandemic. We also know that we need to remove barriers to vaccine access for our most vulnerable individuals in Michigan, including those with disabilities, lower income, and racial and ethnic minorities,” Khaldun said in a statement.

“These steps will allow our federally qualified health centers across the state to begin ... and will prioritize vaccine allocation to partnerships and providers who are removing barriers to access. This strategy is important as we move forward with our goal to equitably vaccinate 70% of Michiganders over age 16 as quickly as possible.”

MDHHS Public Information Officer Bob Wheaten added, “We want to vaccinate everyone as quickly as we can, including people who are vulnerable, such as our residents with disabilities. Unfortunately, there is not enough vaccine available to vaccinate everyone as soon as we would like.”

According to current estimates, enough vaccinations for those eligible to receive the vaccine in phase 1C may not arrive until May 1. Will the changes made in March be enough to protect the 1.9 million higher risk disabled Michiganders and their caregivers? Maes doesn’t think so, but said it’s good to start somewhere.

“We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel, which is very hopeful, but that light is still a great distance away,” Werner added. “We have some work to do, and at this stage of the game, it’s really our responsibility now to bring attention to those folks who need additional care, especially when we’re looking at those caregivers.”

For more information, visit misilc.org/disability-network-oakland/macomb.