COVID-19 Vaccines and the Disabilities Community in Massachusetts

Author: Nicholas Randell

The focus of this blog post is a webinar on the COVID-19 vaccines as they affect people with disabilities in Massachusetts.  For more of a Western New York perspective, take a look at this webinar recording from the Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western New York:

On Tuesday, March 9th, the Center for Public Representation (CPR) hosted a webinar entitled COVID-19 and the Disability Community.  Headquartered in Northampton, MA, this is how CPR describes its mission:

CPR is dedicated to enforcing and expanding the rights of people with disabilities and others who are in segregated settings. CPR uses legal strategies, advocacy, and policy to design and implement systemic reform initiatives to promote their integration and full community participation. Working on state, national and international levels, CPR is committed to equality, diversity and social justice in all its activities.

During the pandemic, CPR has focused on health equity for the disability community and for communities of color as it relates to COVID-19. Their advocacy worked to challenge inequitable crisis of care standards and to secure priority access to the vaccine. As vaccines became available, CPR held a series of listening sessions to identify the key questions and concerns that people with disabilities and communities of color wanted to know about. The March 9th event was intended to address these issues.

Four panelists joined moderator and CPR Executive Director Cathy Constanzo. Content and takeaways from each panelist are summarized below.

Panelist No. 1.  Dr. Cheri Blauwet, Harvard Medical School, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

  • Physician bias towards people with disabilities is a real issue.  A study in the Boston journal Health Affairs found that 82% of physicians believe that people with disabilities have a poorer quality of life; only 41% are confident in their ability to provide the same quality of care for people with disabilities; and only 57% strongly agreed that they would welcome people with disabilities in their practice.
  • Disability is “intersectional.”  25% of African Americans have a disability; 40% of Americans over 65 have a disability.
  • COVID-19 guidelines have unintended consequences for people with disabilities.  Mask wearing makes lip reading and interpreting of facial cues almost impossible.  Some people with disabilities cannot tolerate wearing a mask.  Social distancing does not work with therapies that require tactile connection.  Stay at home orders disrupt continuity of care.
  • Advocacy gains have been significant.  Personal care assistants have been approved for hospital visitations; in Massachusetts, comorbidities were removed from patient triage criteria; accommodations were identified for people who cannot tolerate a mask (alternative access routes) or need to read lips (clear face shields); and improved data collection established to better represent the disability community.

Panelist No. 2.  Dr. Regina Larocque, Infectious Disease Specialist, Massachusetts General Hospital

  • We can feel good about the safety and effectiveness of all the available vaccines.  They were developed quickly, but there are many years of research behind them.  Researchers had to follow all the protocols and requirement; they did not “cut corners.”
  • It actually helped that so many people got sick because it meant a lot of research subjects.
  • There is ongoing surveillance of the vaccines.  In other words, researchers are monitoring people who have received them for any unexpected effects.
  • People with disabilities and people of color were represented in vaccine trials.  The trials did a good job finding research subjects that mirrored the population of the country as a whole.
  • People with allergies have not demonstrated a lot of problems when receiving the vaccine.  If you do have serious allergies, talk to your doctor about receiving the vaccine in a clinic or hospital.
  • There is no reason to believe that people with a compromised immune system are at particular risk from the vaccine.  It also appears to be safe regardless of any underlying genetic conditions that a person may have.
  • Bottom line:  all vaccines are effective at preventing COVID-19, including the new variants.
  • “Nobody is safe from COVID until everyone is safe from COVID.”

Panelist No. 3.  Nassira Nicola, Health and Disabilities Program Coordinator, Massachusetts Department of Public Health

  • In Massachusetts, sources of help in getting a vaccine appointment include calling 211 or talking to your MassHealth care team (if you have one).
  • If you have a friend that spends a lot of time on the computer, consider asking them to check for available vaccine appointments.
  • Vaccine sites are not going to ask you to prove a condition or diagnosis.  They work on the honor system.
  • You can try to pick and choose a vaccine based on what is offered at a particular site.  But the best vaccine is the vaccine that you can get soon!
  • Your support person can accompany you when you get a vaccine.  You can also bring headphones and other sensory equipment.  If you cannot wear a mask let people at the vaccine site know right away.  They should be able to bring you to a special area with proper social distancing.
  • Think about taking it easy the day after you get the vaccine, because you may not feel great.

Panelist No. 4.  Dr. S. Atyia Martin, CEO and Founder of All Aces, Inc., a Racial Equity and Advocacy Organization

  • All Aces is part of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition.  Black Boston conducted wellness checks for people of color and people with disabilities and acted as a trusted source of information on COVID testing and vaccinations.  They also conducted a vaccine drive in conjunction with Black History Month activities.
  • All Aces advocated to get vaccine locations near where people of color live.  They partnered with the City of Boston on the vaccine site at the Reggie Lewis Center to make sure people of color had access, had the right information, and felt valued by the process.

If interested, you can view a recording of the presentation, in its entirety, here: