We all can agree that 2020 was perhaps one of the most difficult years any of us have ever experienced. As we settle into this new year, I am focused on remaining optimistic and positive about the changes I hope to come.
But I am also worried. I am the president and CEO of Arc Thrift Stores, one of the state’s largest employers of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). I am also the father of a 17-year-old young man with Down syndrome. What troubles me and keeps me up at night is that this vulnerable population — my son, my employees and friends, and the thousands of people in Colorado who have IDD and chronic care needs — is not being adequately protected.
I implore Gov. Jared Polis to make this population a higher priority on Colorado’s vaccination list.
As the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out across the state, it is not lost on me or my colleagues who work every day to champion for the rights of people with disabilities that this population is not being prioritized. For nearly two decades I have been working for community inclusion, and never have I been more concerned.
Some sobering statistics to consider:
- According to a FAIR Health survey last November, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities under the age of 70 were four to five times more likely to die following COVID-19 infection than the general population. The only people at higher risk were people with lung cancer.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now identified people with Down syndrome as being at high risk of severe illness following COVID-19 infection.
- People with IDD and/or other disabilities have support personnel coming in and out of their homes, placing them at higher risk for infection.
- People with IDD and other disabilities may experience multiple medical conditions that result in a higher risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19 infection.
- And, perhaps most significantly, according to year-end figures, there were over 1.3 million Coloradans prioritized ahead of people with IDD and other disabilities to receive the vaccine (except for those people with IDD and other disabilities in other eligible groups, such as those currently living in long-term care facilities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, intermediate care facilities and group homes). People with IDD who are ages 65 and over would be part of the exception, too; however, their lifespan is rarely that high.
Of course, COVID has upended all of our lives — the virus does not discriminate. Our government shouldn’t, either.
People in Colorado with disabilities are valuable, essential members of our state and our economy. But because of certain pre-existing or other conditions, it is often difficult for them to socially distance themselves, get around with cars, use drive-through services, or take public transportation. They are, therefore, at a higher risk for serious complications if they contract COVID.
I cannot sit idly by while the disability community is overlooked.
It’s a simple as this: We are asking that people with IDD and chronic care needs be immediately prioritized within Phase 1B of Colorado’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, and that they should be able to obtain the vaccine from their provider or pharmacy when available just as everyone else.
Since the pandemic hit in March of last year, Arc Thrift Stores has stepped in where and when we were needed. As a designated “essential business,” in the last 10 months we have provided over 65 tons of food to people in need, as well as thousands of pounds of masks and material for masks, personal protective equipment, scrubs, and supplies for thousands of Coloradans and to hundreds of organizations (such as rescue missions, Meals on Wheels, food pantries, homeless shelters, senior centers, Native American reservations, childcare centers, etc.) who are also helping in this time of need.
But more can be done.
My son, and our employees with IDD, and all Coloradans with IDD and other disabilities, are my heart and soul.
I ask that Colorado prioritize people with IDD and chronic care needs for vaccines. Any further loss of life for any of these wonderful souls would cut at me, and Colorado, deeply.
Even a single loss of life, preventable with vaccination, is one life too many.
I urge you to contact the governor (email firstname.lastname@example.org), Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera (email Dianne.Primavera@state.co.us) and your state representative and senator to help advocate for this important part of our community. (You can find your state lawmakers here if you input your address in the field at the top left of the interactive map.
You can visit www.arcthrift.com/priorities to learn more about ways you can help.
Lloyd Lewis is president and CEO of Arc Thrift Stores.
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