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How disabled community could face hurdles ahead of vaccination

People with disabilities and their family members share in the excitement and fears of eligibility opening March 15.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Starting Monday, the long-awaited day, people with disabilities will be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine in California.

Nearly a month ago, Governor Gavin Newsom announced people with disabilities would be eligible to get the vaccine starting March 15. While many of those with disabilities are excited about the possibility of getting the vaccine soon, anxiety and barriers still remain for them.

Disability Rights California Executive Director Andy Imparato said allowing people with disabilities to get vaccinated could save lives.

"We're very supportive of prioritizing people over 65 because they're disproportionately dying from COVID," Imparto said.  "We've been saying, don't stop at 65, go below 65 for people who have an underlying health condition that makes them more at risk of dying from COVID." 

Imparato explained the people eligible in this section of the possibility include everyone whose disability or illness puts them at risk of a severe case of COVID-19 or death from the virus.

"I mean, so the basic concept is anybody who's at higher risk of dying from COVID because of their underlying health condition," Imparato said. "Whether it's a mental condition, or a physical condition, or a sensory disability, if they can show or a test, that they are at higher risk of dying from COVID, then they're eligible,"

California expects 4.4 million people to be in this phase of vaccinations. 

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Imparato explained he fears attestation of a person's disability or illness will be a hurdle many people with disabilities will have to face. 

"For a lot of folks with disabilities, especially people that are from low-income communities, communities of color, rural parts of the state, they're not necessarily going to have easy access to a doctor. And a lot of people are afraid to literally leave their house or their apartment to go to a doctor because they don't want to put themselves at risk of getting COVID," Imparato said. "If you're not asking teachers to prove that they are teachers, then why are you asking disabled people to prove that they're disabled?

Disability Rights California plans to keep track of locations requiring documentation of a person's disability or illness on its website.

Ann McDonald-Cacho and Jim LeBrecht said that just getting an appointment and the anxiety that comes with it has been the biggest hurdle.

Working on behalf of her son, who has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal, McDonald-Cacho said she and her husband were vaccinated in Phase 1A of California's tier system but wishes her son could have been vaccinated first.

"Well, we thought it was a little bit upside down; we would have happily given up one of ours to, you know, give my son a vaccine since he's so at risk. But I'm very glad that we were able to get protected, at least to this partial degree," McDonald-Cacho said.

LeBrecht, who has spina bifida, other underlying health conditions and 2 months shy of 65, said getting a vaccination appointment has been difficult. He and McDonald-Cacho, on behalf of her son, have been trying to get an appointment since the announcement.

"It has really felt like, you know, you have to try to go to the black market to try to get a shot or try to game the system. It shouldn't be like this," LeBrecht said. 

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On March 11, the California Department of Public Health announced transportation workers, people living in homeless shelters, people who are incarcerated, and other people living in congregate living facilities would be eligible to get the vaccine on March 15 as well. McDonald-Cacho said she is excited that more people are eligible to get the vaccine but is worried it will mean her son will remain vulnerable for longer.

"So I think if I don't secure anything by Monday, it might be that I'm a little more worried than I'm worried at this very moment," McDonald-Cacho said. 

Until Lebrecht and McDonald-Cacho's son gets the vaccine, they and their families will continue to do what they have done for the majority of the pandemic, staying inside.

"We have to relax and go, 'Just keep going no different than the days before.' And ultimately, he'll get protected," Ann McDonald-Cacho said.  

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