Nurse Joe Pumo, left, administers a shot to nurse Rae McLean as the critical staff at the Kaiser Permanente Lone Tree Medical Offices receive their first doses of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 on December 23, 2020 in Lone Tree, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott for The Colorado Sun)

I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, deep in the midst of my dissertation research, interviewing working female family caregivers. I’m interested in finding out what caregiving and working during the COVID-19 pandemic has been like for them.

I’m hearing stories about isolation, loneliness and excessive burden, as well as unexpected joys, like getting to spend more time with their loved one and being able to ensure their safety and wellbeing. There is no one uniform story.

However, one factor is emerging more and more over the course of my interviews. Interviewees are talking about vaccinations.

Jessica King McLaughlin

Initially, I was hesitant to ask any questions about vaccinations given the topic’s somewhat political and contentious nature, but caregivers are bringing this topic up on their own, and one sentiment is consistent: frustration. Most caregivers have said their loved ones for whom they provide care have been able to be vaccinated, as they are eligible due to their advanced age, but the caregivers themselves are not. 

Many express what they view as the nonsensicality of the policies surrounding vaccine rollout; if the caregivers themselves get coronavirus and fall ill, who will take their place and cover the tasks they do for their loved ones? Most say that there is no one to step in.

The first priority for vaccinations has been frontline health care workers, regardless of the state. We absolutely need to protect our nurses, doctors, nurses’ aides, medical techs, and hospital and medical environmental services employees; our health care system would not function without them. 

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However, our health care system also does not function without family caregivers. In fact, health care in the United States would be likely to collapse without the “free” labor that they provide. Yet there is no plan in place to safeguard their health. So often, the work of family caregivers is unseen, and thus, forgotten, and it is happening once again.

Some states are attempting to address this. However, here in Colorado, there have been no policies introduced that would prioritize or even recognize the important role of caregivers during the pandemic. 

On a federal level, President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package has some measures to address the needs of caregivers, such as payments to adult dependents and support for the National Family Caregiver Support Program. but that as I write this, those provisions are stuck in the throes of legislative wrangling.

It is maddening that help for caregivers is consistently caught up in partisan squabbles because it is tied to other, more polarizing policy decisions. And, of course, vaccination has been left up to the states and not addressed sufficiently on a federal level.

Massachusetts initiated a policy of allowing the supposed “loved ones” of an older adult who brought the older adult to their vaccination appointments to also get vaccinated. On the surface, this policy seemed poised to benefit caregivers. However, this policy was quickly abused and proved rife for opportunities for corruption. People started paying random strangers to accompany them to their vaccine appointments.   

As with any policy that is hastily prepared and executed, it is likely an understatement to say that, not all elements of the vaccine rollout have been thought through. This did not have to be the case, but urgent requests for sufficient financial aid for the rollout were not met. The government did not listen to those with the greatest knowledge and expertise in this area.  

I wrote an opinion column for The Colorado Sun about caregivers and the debate over universal health care in January 2020, before the coronavirus had engulfed our nation in a state of Zoom socializing and social distancing. Universal health care is still not a reality, though it has been debated in the halls of Congress for the past four-plus years

Frankly, the sloth-like pace of policy making is maddening. When it comes to supporting our caregivers through this pandemic, however, we do not have four years. 

We cannot afford to ignore the needs of our caregivers in policymaking. We need to tend to  their needs as they tend to the needs of others in their homes on a daily basis. They deserve vaccine priority now.

Jessica King McLaughlin is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, researching female caregivers and policy.

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Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @jkingmclaughlin