Groups advocating for people with disabilities are asking the province to prioritize a wider list of vulnerable Manitobans for COVID-19 vaccines.
Right now, eligibility for supersites and temporary vaccine clinics is based on how old a person is and whether they work in a high-risk setting.
Some younger Manitobans up to age 64 with high-risk health conditions can also get vaccinated — but that only applies to First Nations people as young as 30 and people in the rest of the population as young as 50.
Advocates say that list needs to include people with disabilities who have underlying conditions or live in certain settings which could put them at risk, no matter how old they are.
“They’re doing it by age, and they really need to look at not the person’s mobility or their diagnosis, but their underlying health conditions and where they’re living,” said David Kron, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba.
That group, along with several others in Manitoba, put out a joint statement this weekend calling for changes.
Many people with disabilities live in poverty and don’t have access to public health information, which puts them at a higher risk, that statement said.
Kron said people with disabilities who live in congregate settings like group homes, or who have home care workers coming in and out of where they live, should also be included in the vaccine rollout.
“Those are all the criteria that they need to [use to] prioritize our folks so that they get a little higher on the list than just somebody who lives at home and has a small bubble and has very few contacts,” he said.
Kron, who also works with advocacy group Barrier-Free Manitoba, said there are roughly 175,000 people with disabilities in Manitoba.
While not all people with disabilities also have underlying health conditions, many do, he said.
Advocates aren’t asking for all of them to be prioritized right now for COVID-19 vaccines, he said, though the number of disabled people who also have underlying conditions is likely still in the thousands.
Caregivers should also be included: advocate
Rosalie Best, the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities’ accessibility services co-ordinator, said because people with disabilities often get help from more than one caregivers, people working those jobs should be eligible, too.
Right now, Best has four or five people helping her on any given week. Because she has weakened lung capacity, she said, she’s worried about the risk of getting COVID-19 from one of those support workers.
“We’re kind of at their mercy,” she said. “They’re in and out of my house. I can’t track them. And as much as I do trust them, I’m not making them write down their activities, who they’ve been seeing. And so this is a little thing that they could do to make it easier.”
With COVID-19 numbers on the rise again in Manitoba, she said she’s worried about getting sick before she’s eligible for the extra protection a vaccination would give her.
A provincial spokesperson said Manitoba’s vaccine supply is still limited, which shapes the decisions made about who gets immunized first.
“[W]e must allocate doses based on medical evidence to those who are at most risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, while also protecting those who deliver health-care services to the rest of us,” the spokesperson said in an email.
So far, that approach has involved “very difficult decisions” and led the province’s vaccine rollout to focus first on people living in personal care homes and certain congregate living facilities, the spokesperson said.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, has previously said research shows that taking that kind of age-based approach to rolling out immunizations captures the highest proportion of high-risk people.
Kron said he’s feeling optimistic that the province will soon expand eligibility criteria to include more people with disabilities and caregivers.
“It’s in the government’s best interest to do it,” he said.
“These are the folks that are high-risk and they want to protect people at high risk.”
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