The Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities is deeply concerned about recent comments by CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky and the resulting follow-up from the CDC. While referencing the results of a research study, Dr. Walensky stated that it was “encouraging news” that a disproportionate number of deaths due to COVID-19 occurred among “people who were unwell to begin with.” With the full transcript of the interview released, some have been soliced by the fact that she was referencing the effectiveness of the vaccine in addition to the fact that those who died had four or more comorbidities. However, we were not.
Rather than respond to what elements of Dr. Walensky’s statements were troubling related to value for the lives of people with comorbidities, the CDC has instead focused on what they view as inaccurate and unfair editing of the interview itself. Even with context, Dr. Walensky has not denied categorizing those with multiple comorbidities as “already unwell”, which is interpreted by many to mean already likely to die. This is not accurate and a dangerous public health message.
As an organization that is dedicated to identifying and reducing healthcare inequities that exist for people with disabilities, we have seen how this exact implicit bias towards people with disabilities creates a system that is fraught with ableism and stigma. From the onset of this pandemic, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people with disabilities – whether that is because people with disabilities are more likely to be exposed as residents in long term care facilities, they are deprioritized for treatment by crisis standards of care, or they were not accounted for by state vaccine prioritization plans.
In an effort to create a more equitable healthcare system for people with disabilities, we urge the CDC to go beyond a one-time meeting with disability advocates to address this controversy. It is past time that the CDC have an ongoing relationship with members of the disability community. This includes direct representation of disability in their leadership structure. More long-term efforts backed by authentic recognition of the need to integrate disability into their planning throughout rather than as an afterthought would send a strong message to both healthcare providers and to the disability community, that the voices and experiences of people with disabilities matter.
Within the framework of these collaborations, we urge the CDC to act on the following:
- Collect disability demographic data in public health data collection efforts. Failure to collect necessary data to guide our solutions is systemic ableism.
- Issue formal guidance on crisis standards of care. Rationing care has extended beyond shortages of ventilators. Given ongoing crises of healthcare provider shortages, CDC guidelines must ensure people with disabilities are treated equitably in decisions to ration care, beds, medicine, and staffing.
- Rescind the dangerous new guidance about duration of quarantine when infected, especially for healthcare workers. It is imperative that people with disabilities can trust that they will not be infected by their own doctor. Already at a disadvantage in receiving adequate healthcare, our community cannot afford to further delay preventative and acute services because of the very real likelihood a member of their healthcare team will be recently sick and still contagious.
We appreciate the CDC’s willingness to engage in dialogue with our community following Dr. Walensky’s harmful remarks. We hope this is the beginning of a sustainable and mutually beneficial path towards improved collaboration and better health for all Americans.
Kara B. Ayers, PhD
Director, Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities
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