Booster is a series exploring the COVID-19 vaccine, and what it means for young people — from the science behind it to how it impacts our lives. In this op-ed, Melissa Shang points out how disabled people haven’t been prioritized in COVID-19 vaccine efforts, and why that needs to change.
It’s a Thursday morning and I’m about to log on to my Zoom class when I hear my phone buzzing beside me with a text from my best friend: “As you know, it’s my birthday this weekend, and I’m going shopping with a couple of my friends. I was wondering if you want to come?”
“Can’t, of course 🙁 Wish I could, though,” I respond.
I wish more than anything that I could celebrate my friend’s 18th birthday with her, but I know that after months of trying to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t risk my life for a birthday celebration.
I am your typical 17-year-old in most ways, but I was born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a degenerative nerve disease that causes muscles in my arms and legs to atrophy over time and weakens my lungs. I wear leg braces, use a motorized wheelchair to get around, and use a BiPAP machine that pushes air into my lungs when I sleep. My condition also puts me at higher risk of having a severe case of COVID-19.
I am acutely aware of what respiratory viruses can do to my body. Last year, a simple case of the flu landed me in the ICU for respiratory failure, and it took almost three weeks before my life regained a sense of normalcy. I never want to risk experiencing that again. That’s why for the past 10 months, since March of 2020, I’ve been quarantined with my parents, barely seeing my friends or leaving my neighborhood.
That’s also why for the past few months, I’ve been trying desperately to receive the vaccine. I’ve been calling my doctors, researching vaccine distribution plans, and checking for updates daily.
I’m not alone in my desperation — millions of young at-risk people are facing the same struggle. Despite me and my vulnerable peers needing the vaccine more than ever, we are continuously deprioritized by many states; many vulnerable people have been pushed aside in vaccination policies, without a clear date for when we may receive the vaccine.
In fact, despite the United States Center for Disease Control’s recommendation to put people aged “16—64 years with underlying medical conditions which increase the risk of serious, life-threatening complications from COVID-19” in Phase 1c of vaccine rollout, states such as Rhode Island are instead including people in that category in later stages. California has switched to a system solely based on age, meaning older caregivers are eligible for the vaccine when the disabled people they care for aren’t.
California’s decision seemed to be motivated in part by the fact that older people are more susceptible to severe illness by the virus. But this erases the many young people who may be similarly at risk. Young sick people are not like young healthy people, and putting us in the same category is ignorant and dangerous.
If potentially dying of COVID-19 isn’t enough reason to be afraid, people with disabilities are also terrified of becoming another case of collateral damage from a hospital deeming our lives less worth living.
Another argument that I’ve heard time and time again is that “if disabled people are so afraid of contracting COVID-19, they can just stay home.” What people fail to understand, though, is that not all of us can. Like our nondisabled counterparts, we live busy, full lives, and we can’t give that up at the drop of a hat. We have jobs, we have groceries to buy, and many of us have important doctor’s appointments and procedures.